The Disintegrating Man

Sanjeev Mohanl

writings: story

November 2012

There was something he wanted to forget. Something he really did not wish to remember. Something bad had happened, really bad. As soon as the cycle of cause and effect started in his mind, he suppressed it. He must remember to forget. All this was beginning to tell on him. He was a very methodical person by nature, who believed in cataloguing and filing away everything. In spite of this, things had gone wrong and now he wanted to forget. What should he do?

He gave the matter considerable thought and as was his habit, noted everything on a blank piece of paper. (He had bundles of scrap paper all over his room, just for the purpose of jotting down things). The facts were as follows:

1)  Certain events had taken place
"Certain undesirable events," he corrected the entry.
2)   These events had to be forgotten.
"Completely forgotten," he added as an after-thought.
3)   He was blameless..

He promptly cancelled this out as it would lead to the eternal cycle of cause and effect and mental debates, which was just what he was attempting to escape from. So after amending the list, he had only two points:

1)   Certain undesirable events had taken place
2)   These events had to be completely forgotten

After some thought, he cancelled out "undesirable". Brevity, as someone had once remarked, is the soul of wit.

He pondered over this question on his way to the station and then in the train to his office. By the time he reached his destination, he had hit upon a suitable POA (plan of action for the uninitiated). It was really simple: all he had to do was to get away from his surroundings for a while so that he could dissociate all that had happened from his memory. He would go to a lonely mountain retreat or hermitage for a fortnight or so. Once he had decided on what to do, his course of action, he calmed down. He checked the newspapers for suitable holiday resorts and found one in a village situated on the Western Ghats. He then listed out what all he would require during the journey:

1)   Provisions (including drinking water)
2)   Sufficient clothing
3)   His mobile
4)   His ATM card.

He cancelled out the mobile phone and ATM card: the former because there were probably no ATM machines in the vicinity; and the latter because it would distract him.

Now, he got stuck on the word "distract". Wasn't the whole idea of this sojourn to divert his mind away from its sources of undesirable tension? Of course, he realised that if he was not suitably focussed on his objective of distraction, the process might well redirect him to the very things he wanted to forget.

At last, after long deliberation, he decided to take his cell phone but to keep it on "silent" during the vacation.

Now came the really difficult part. How was he to forget? He pondered about it as he automatically corrected a program he had written for an ECDIS application he was working on. ECDIS is an acronym for Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems. It is an electronic version of a navigational chart. He worked for a software firm which developed such applications for commercial use.

After a while, he got the program to respond as he wanted it to but he was nowhere near the answer he was actually searching for. That is to say, the big question: What should he do? How should he forget about what he needed to forget?

It took him a while but at last he managed to reason out things. He was of a rational bent of mind and that's why he had opted for physics as his a major for graduation. After that, he had spent two years in acquiring a Masters degree in Computer Science. "If I were to chase a thought," he reasoned to himself, "anything that comes to mind, I will be taken to another one, contiguous with the first, which in turn will lead to yet another and so on. In this way, all my memories are linked in the form of a net by a sequence of cause and effect. Each and every moment is linked. So all I need to do is break the linkage by refusing to connect and reconnect."

Could this really be done?
He tried to think about the one thing about which he was trying to forget. Thoughts flew around and he was soon arguing furiously with himself.

"Stop! Enough!"

He took a deep breath and once again entered the fray. He would take another thought, a simple one. Let's say, he would place this bunch of keys somewhere (the keys to his apartment) and he would attempt to forget all about them. He looked around his office and found a hiding place in the cabinet space of the CPU unit of his computer.

He then sat down and tried to expel all thoughts of the keys and where he had just placed them.  He refused to link the keys with their hiding place. It seemed to be working.

After a while he realised that it had worked. He had managed to forget. This was really an achievement! But what was it he had forgotten about? He knew he had been successful because he couldn't remember what it was he had forgotten. Must be something inconsequential, he thought. Else, I would not have tried to forget about it. It just goes to show that even a logical and ordered mind sometimes gives way to the illogical.

Now, it was time to push further. He would try something else. This time, however, he would note down whatever it was he was trying to forget so that he could remember it if and when he needed to. But then he realised that there was no way he could remember what he forgotten if he couldn't remember what it was he had forgotten about in the first place.

Alright then, he would record it. That's it. He would record it so that he could recall all as and when he wanted to. So it was decided that he would record everything he wished to forget, other than that one thing which he definitely wished to expel from his mind.

There was a chance, however, that the recording could possibly trigger a chain of thoughts that would bring back to mind all that he had forgotten with so much difficulty. It was a difficult decision to make and it left him puzzled. So he consulted a colleague, a fellow programmer, who advised him to complete his assignment and confine his experiments on the art of forgetting to the weekend. This seemed reasonable enough, so he returned to the software program he was working on.

He sat and stared at the program code for a long time. There was a glitch somewhere, for the linking section was unable to bring the others together. There must be an inconsistency in the logic. So engrossed was he in this problem that he soon forgot he had something to forget. Such is life.  

By evening, he managed to fix the program. It seemed to be working well and he was tired, so he decided to test it more comprehensively later on. He then locked up left his office after wishing all his colleagues a happy weekend. It was Friday and his fortnight-long holiday loomed pleasantly ahead. He caught the 6.45 train just as it was leaving the station and was home in less than half an hour.

After a soothing cup of tea, he began to pack for his vacation. He decided to make it a fun trip, though it was not going to be easy, considering the purpose of his much needed break. He decided to add some more items to his earlier list of what he wanted to take along:

1)   The Sorrows of Young Werther byJohann Wolfgangvon Goethe (an English translation)
2)   The C ProgrammingLanguage
by Dennis Ritchie (He was heavily into "retro" C programming though he was conversant with C++, C#, Java, VB, Python among others).
3)   His trusty laptop
4)   His collection of movie CD's, which included Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, the Godfather series, as well as a documentary on the work of Akira Kurosawa.
5)   A bottle of Old Monk rum

That should do it, he thought as he closed his suitcase. He was all set to go.

He had already left instructions with his landlady, washerwoman and bike cleaner. He had even sent an email to his office informing them of his whereabouts during his vacation. He didn't need to but he felt he ought to. That was the kind of person he was, always trying to do the right thing. As it turned out, it was very fortunate for him that he did, for it was the office which initiated the sequence of events which led to his rescue after his unfortunate experiments with time and memory.

Whatever he did he did well, so it would not surprise anyone to learn that he had reached a point where he was postulating an additional dimension to the concept of time and space, that is, memory. He was working out these concepts when matters took such a tragic turn.

He took one quick look around his house and then stepped out boldly into the night. The boarding point was close by and he was soon aboard a bus taking him to the retreat. The journey was uneventful. He followed the path of the vehicle as it moved towards the foothills, negotiating S-bends and blind turns with equal aplomb. He noted that this was probably the kind of journey the Beatles had in mind in "The Long and Winding Road". 

On arriving at his destination, he disembarked from the bus and walked down to the resort which lay just across the road. It consisted of a number of small villas, with red roofs and whitewashed walls, in a large enclosure. They could be rented on a daily or weekly basis. He took the keys to his apartment on the first floor of one of the villas from the watchman at the entrance to the enclave. 

He surveyed his flat. It was neat and clean with sparse but functional furniture. From the window, he had a view of the highway and hills in the distance. It was just as he had imagined it to be. There was a small township in the distance from where he could pick up food and other things he might require. He then set about arranging his belongings and planning out what he had to. He had a fortnight in hand: the first one to forget and the next to get used to the idea of having forgotten. He had a bath, ate some sandwiches and then read for a while from The Sorrowsof Young Werther beforefalling asleep.

The next day, he awoke with enthusiasm. He breakfasted lightly and proceeded to the window. He stared into the middle distance and tried to concentrate only on the process of staring. That is, seeing without actually comprehending or analyzing what he saw. Thoughts, all of them linked to the horrible thing he wanted to forget, arose but he refused to rise to the bait. They danced tantalizingly before him, trying to allure him, trying to get him to retaliate by analyzing. But he refused to comment.
The battle continued for a while until he was able to quell the maelstrom that was wrecking his mind. He had a strong will power, so he was able to subdue all that was disturbing him and by lunch time, he was feeling considerably invigorated.

He had a Spartan lunch, took a short siesta and then awoke refreshed to continue with the process of forgetting. First, he needed some fresh air. He walked over to the window and stared at the cars on the highway. The cars, unaware that they were being watched, brazenly raced by in fine disregard of the 80 kmph speed limit posted at regular intervals. Speed limits, they seemed to believe, are meant to be broken.

It was evening and the evening hour is generally one for reflection. Gazing at the road caused memories to surface. But he was ready for them. No linking, no cycle of cause and effect. It was not easy because what had arisen begged his logical mind to refute it as most unreasonable. For a moment, he faltered but then drawing himself up, he suppressed these unwanted thoughts.

But wait, first he must prepare for the celebration thereafter. "After all this is over," he thought, "I will work on the new operating system." For quite some time he had been working on a new computer operating system, which he was designing specially for navigational equipment such as the ECDIS. "That will be fun," he mused. He enjoyed nothing better than a bit of intellectual stimulation. Naturally after that he would indulge in a drink, pizza and a good film. Yes, he would certainly have much to be ebullient over once he had erased all that was undesirable from his memory. With such pleasant thoughts in mind, he sat down to forget.

That is how they found him three days later. A book on computer operating systems by Abraham Silebrschatz was lying near his laptop, a bottle of wine in the refrigerator and a decaying pizza still in its box. Our protagonist was seated in the balcony, a beatific smile on his face, for he had forgotten all he needed to and more.

On receiving no response to their phone calls, the office sent someone over to investigate. It was lucky for him, they did. It took him a month or two to recover and even now large tracts of his memory are missing. It seems he had done too good a job of forgetting. Gradually, however, his memory seems to be returning. Whenever he sees or reads something associated with his past, the old cause and effect linkages rejoin and images from long ago begin to slowly reform.

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©2012 Sanjeev Mohan
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Sanjeev Mohan studied literature at the University of Bombay (Mumbai) and plans to carry out research on aspects of Indian writing. His work has been published in various literary journals such as Himal, Euphony, Shakespeare (a magazine), Kavya Bharati and Avatar Review (an online journal). He is a professional seafarer and holds a Foreign Going Master's Certificate of Competency.


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November 2012

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