The party’s winding up. It was tip-top, first-class. The drinks, the scene – the bar, with its window partitions made from old Vanity Fair photographic glass plates, like cultural X-rays, ghosts of fashions past.
And the coke … Neon Kumar is all but hovering. The buzz in his skull is a new type of electromagnetism. It bears him along, his feet touching the floor only as a matter of tradition.
And then, on the way out, there’s a girl. She’s apple-bottomed, with the opaque skin of a junkie. A smile, she offers her hand. But he opts to cup a breast (it’s that sort of party – tip-top, first-class); and she squeals and topples, her weight falls awkwardly against him and he can hear the coke-buzz in her head, and they’re down, and laughing, rolling on the floor; and he finds there’s a bit more party left in him after all; he’s assembling a fat line for her on the horizontal screen of an old arcade game, and it’s as if she’s going to suck up the pixels of the vintage Galaga game along with the powder.
He uses her bare shoulder to make a line for himself, the powder mixing with her sweat to form a paste, slowly fizzing; he heaves in a snort that hurts his eyes.
“Oh.” His head hangs back limply on his neck.
He’s remembering Aditi, the time they met on Superstar Bigg Boss, the reality show out of Mumbai.
“She loved me,” he says, “the audience polls showed it.”
Applebottom lifts her head. “What?”
“What?” It’s too noisy. He builds some more lines for them instead …
But they’re not really lines, are they? They’re line segments. Because what we usually call lines are in fact tiny portions of the true geometric line – that series of points that extends without end – that infinitely long idealisation, that true, unparalleled line leading to the peaks that Ludwig van Beethoven and Van Halen celebrated with “Ode to Joy”, with “Jump” … It’s this that Neon Kumar is pursuing, that mathematical thing, that pure thing. His lifeline, his rekava, taking him ever higher. He’s a mountaineer, facing perils at every step. But he’s not daunted.
This is a strong man, a great man. Former Indian wrestling league gold medallist, four-time WWE superheavyweight title-holder, intercontinental SmackDown champion, film star, TV personality.
He can face them all down, all the dangers. The central nervous system damage, the respiratory trauma, the financial stresses – the snow blindness, the lizard blizzards, the white-outs that come swelling in. The sounds and light warping and morphing. He’s fine, he can hack it, just one more line, just do it …
And when he can’t, when he comes crashing down, his crew is there, his entourage – faithful Chocolate Prasad at his back, taking him under the shoulders, and good old Smita, his plucky sherpa. They ease him away – he looks around for the girl – has she left already? The party’s barely started.
They carry him out into the Hollywood night. A rented limo at the curb. They pour him into it. He hears Prasad instructing the driver to take the passenger straight home …
The engine a warm hum, the car smoothing along the wide American streets, Neon Kumar sprawling alone in the backseat, asleep … although the words sleep and sprawl are too polite: we need words less genteel to convey what’s to be seen here – this zombified sagger, this gutted sea-cucumber slumper, inwardly hazed with weak dreams that would barely stir the needles of an EEG test.
He’s in the old kitchen in the Kolkata house. It’s dawn. And here’s Aditi, his love, making breakfast puri, the morning light mixing with her smile as she comes in for the kiss under the Superstar Bigg Boss sky, and then, and then, oh, Aditi, they’re naked and, oh, he’s quivering like a boy, like it’s the first time, and she’s the colours of kohl and lipstick, there’s a pulse, a warm hum, a rough fuzzy pulse that..
“Hey, man.” Neon Kumar stirs. “Hey.” It’s the driver. “Where we going, man?” The limo has pulled to the curb, the engine’s idling.
The driver is African-American, a kid. His livery is too big on him, like a costume. “Hey, man. Sir. Where we going?” The name on his chest tag is Macdee.
Neon Kumar blinks. “My house, isn’t it? To my house?”
“But where, Sir? What address?”
Neon Kumar thinks. He stammers. He laughs. He’s forgotten his address! Hilarious!
He looks outside. A plastic bag blowing across the tarmac. Where is this? Columbia Square? An old drunk lies there, asleep or dead. And one of those hawker’s stands, the sign lit with a car battery lamp: Maps to the Stars’ Homes.
Wait! Here’s an idea! More hilarious still!
He tells the driver. The driver, Macdee, shrugs, goes and buys one, comes back. He hands it to him. Neon Kumar stares. Such a lurid document!
But look! There it is! Ha! His place is listed, no joke! Home of Former Pro-Wrestler, Film/TV/Recording Star, Neon Kumar: 6230 Del Valle Drive …
Hollywood, USA! He’s on the map! And triumphantly the limo is off again, down Wilshire, along McCarthy – not far at all – the big chrome grille snorting the lines … a couple more blocks, and then they’re pulling up, the driver helping him out.
Neon Kumar tips Macdee with a dusty rolled-up hundred. The limo leaves. He lights a cigarette. He makes unsteady progress up the driveway. He wins a longish negotiation with the front door, and he’s inside; up the stairs, proceeding quietly. Has trouble finding doorknobs. Opens his bedroom door. No, a bathroom. Another door, ah, this is it – no, wait, a kids’ room – he pauses, then bulks through, hardly damaging the frame at all. It’s dark, the kids bundled under the covers. Little darlings. That one, is it Sparrow? Which means the other is Lady. He sees a third. A friend for a sleep-over?
How proud he is! How full of love, joyously weeping, clumbering down to slide in beside Lady, who was always fond of sleeping with Daddy. “Move over, sweetie.” She’s rigid. “Come on, princess, make room.” He sits up, sees her face. It’s so pale. Mouth a black ‘O’, silent at first.
Then the scream, though it’s so high-pitched that at first it doesn’t seem human, and the other kids are up now – the lights are on, a dazzle that confuses – “No, wait! Lady! Sparrow!” – Neon Kumar’s eyes watering, agonies, the light beating him down. He falls out of bed. He sees a man in pyjamas in the hall, trembling, bellowing threats, he’s got a gun.
Christ, bloody Christ. Neon Kumar looks around. The kids are the wrong colour, the wrong ages, wrong sexes. This isn’t his home; this is the wrong address. Of course it is. He lives alone, with his entourage. His children, Sparrow and Lady, are in Kolkata, with Aditi.
The police are pounding on the front door.
SIX MONTHS PASS.
Long months. Lots of legal battles. It’s a close thing. Then it’s next year, the middle of January, and a scientist who calls herself Dr Dianne is handing him a pair of headphones. “Put these on.”
The headphones are old. Second-hand, but not preloved – no one ever loved these things. They pinch his temples and the rubber on the earpieces has perished. Afterwards, when he removes them, the stuff will come off in sticky black flakes like a negative dandruff.
Christ. He wants to call his lawyers again, but he knows what they’ll say.
He’s lucky to be here. Lucky the judge accepted the plea. Lucky the family settled. Lucky to be in this dirt squirrel neighbourhood in this residential California bungalow, re-zoned for scientific and/or medical use. Lucky to be in this miserable clinic with its carpet exactly the same texture and colour as Scotch Brite scouring pads.
And it’s true. The lawyers are right. He’s lucky. It could have been far worse.
The family, the Dietzes, could have cleaned him out. He could be doing time.
Dr Dianne plugs the headphone lead into her iPod. It’s just an iPod, nothing special. She shuffles the clickwheel.
“Here we go.” She taps play.
Neon Kumar hears … what? Nothing. His back hurts. He shifts in the orange plastic stackable. More silence.
“When does it start?”
She gives him a smile that means, “It’s already started you noob”.
But he’s lucky. Lucky to be here. His attorneys dug up some history between the father and the older daughter. Something nasty. That was luck.
Three years before, the father, the stepfather, the one packing heat in his PJs, had been arraigned for sexual misconduct with a related minor.
The charges had been dropped, which meant either that they were false, or that they weren’t and the girl had lost her nerve when it had come time to make a statement.
Whatever, it didn’t matter. Dietze was charged with a sex crime, that was all that counted. Yes! America! USA! Neon Kumar had leapt and sung. He had danced for joy!
It had given them leverage. The Dietzes accepted the first settlement they were offered. The break-and-enter indictment was tossed out of court, leaving only the possession charge. Guilty, it pleased the court and so it pleased Neon Kumar too. This is his sentence, not even community service. It’s something brand new, this addiction therapy, still being discussed in the medical journals, an exciting, fresh approach …
He sits there listening to nothing.
But nothing is where it’s at. You pay a lot for nothing, for less than nothing. Less calories, less weight, less fabric in women’s lingerie, the hush of an expensive restaurant, for media silence …
He’s still sitting there, still listening.
After 10 minutes, Dr Dianne’s phone rings. She answers, laughs. It’s a personal call. She’s organising dinner with someone. It’s like he’s not even there.
“Will there be an injection?” he asks loudly.
“What? Oh.” She winds up the call. “No. Don’t worry, no shots, no pills.”
He nods as if relieved, although secretly he’d been hoping there’d be a chemical component of some sort.
“The unit is purely cognitive,” she explains, and already he’s regretting starting her talking. “It’s like an earworm,” she says. “You know, like when a song gets stuck on repeat in your head? Cyberneticists tell us that when you listen to music, you’re building an automaton in your consciousness. A neural automaton.” A little smile. “It makes me think about songbirds, you know. Is a bird just a song’s way of making another song?”
Remember, he’s lucky to be here. “Yeah. But this isn’t music,” he says. “It isn’t anything.”
“Well, the unit has to be silent.” She says it as if the idea of using the headphones to listen to actual sounds would be madness itself. “Addictions are smart. They’re intelligent agents. Think what we throw at them, the counselling, the coping strategies, the rehab clinics. And even then, there’s a 90% relapse rate. Addictions are smart. The unit can’t very well signal its presence by being audible.”
Neon Kumar looks at her.
She dresses younger than her age, but only because she hasn’t assessed her style for 20 years. She wears her hair long, the black heavily greyed. Her eyes are the problem, something wrong with them. He wonders if she’s mad. But he’s never met a scientist before, and doesn’t understand that their eyes are often …
Something’s happening in the earphones.
It’s like the silence is a song, and the song has reached the coda.
Like there’s a beat without a count, and the rhythm has opened out, and out, coming to the climax.
A more emphatic silence that entirely commands his attention …
It’s hard to hear Dr Dianne over it. (“Addictions are like little egos,” she’s saying. “They’re armoured. They protect themselves with spikes of fear and rage and magical thinking. Sometimes they’ll even destroy themselves to survive …” And probably it’s for the best that he’s no longer listening, because now she’s describing the disastrous early animal tests.)
The silence goes on. It’s all he can hear, working its way into him.
Suddenly, he’s breathing hard, his skin crawling, his mouth dry.
He’s on a maintenance dose, coke and hydrocodone, taken in the Jeep on the way here. He’s thinking maybe it wasn’t enough, because he can feel himself crashing. It’s never come on so quickly before, or so hard.
There’s bad energy up and down the spine, and his legs are in an agony of restlessness. He has the shakes, the blurs, the fevery snarfs.
Everything is ugly. A tower block outside the window looks like cutlery, like it’s meant for cutting.
He scarcely notices when the session ends. Dr Dianne takes the headphones – one silence replaced by another.
He fumbles for his Aviators, realises he’s already wearing them. He leaves the clinic. His boys are out there, Smita and Chocolate Prasad, beaming in the East Hollywood sun; Prasad with a little gift, a shining vial of magic dust (“A little dāva for what ails you, friend”) – but Neon Kumar doesn’t respond. Or rather he does, but with nothing, with silence.
It’s like when you catch an earworm, and you can’t help singing the song over and again. Except this time there’s no song …
DR DIANNE’S UNIT is a fast worker. It’s hungry. It’s a busy little skull Tamagotchi made from silent infrasound and binaural beats.
After finding the main trunk of Neon Kumar’s coke habit (hard not to find it, really), it swarms the superior olivary complex of his brainstem, the area associated with auditory events and spatial perception.
It begins eating away at the outlying branches of the addiction …
It’s been a strange time. Neon Kumar has been keeping to himself.
He’s like the boa constrictor he once heard about – digesting a baby goat – torpid on the outside, inwardly metabolising at the rate of a racing thoroughbred …
He spends a lot of time in the upstairs bathroom. He’s there now. It’s the kind of place that architects and designers call a space. All black marble and a shower with no stall or curtain, just a big industrial nozzle extending from the wall, and him part of the space, lying on his back under the pounding water. The noise slapping from the polished surfaces – the marble comfortable under him, solid, clean and cold …
After a long time, he turns off the shower, dries, leans against a vanity unit with all the extraterrestrial haught of the 2001 monolith. He lights a cigarette.
He finds his phone in his piled clothes. He calls Aditi. They argue immediately: it’s 2.30 am in Kolkata. “Ah, woman,” he complains, “don’t be like that. I just want to talk. I’m feeling … I feel … I’m missing you.”
“No one forced you to leave, gaandu!”
“I can come back. I can come tomorrow.”
“No, Neon, you can’t.”
Actually, wait, she’s right. He remembers he’s booked for a television appearance tomorrow and another the day after, with still more firming up later in the week.
The hell of the past few months is starting to pay off …
But still he begs Aditi, pleads. He begins to cry. He smacks his palm against the marble, an alarming sound.
She worries that he’s hurt himself. He uses that to keep her talking. He doesn’t know what he wants from her, but after a while he starts to feel some ease. “You’re right, yaar, you’re right.” So mature. “I’ll leave you alone now. I won’t bother you any more.” They hang up; he’s OK; he’s pretty good.
Except, of course, for the undeniable ache, the pain too large to be felt, the tears too deep for weeping. What he wouldn’t give to hold his kids again.
THERE ARE MORE SESSIONS. Dr Dianne schools him in the use of the unit. The coke habit is gone, she tells him, but its emotional roots may not be. Push down on one compulsive behaviour and something else bobs up. Vigilance is key. She teaches him how to set the unit to deal with new habits that arise, or old ones worsening.
He tries it out later that night. There’s a bottle of lorazepam next to his bed. He looks at it. He tunes into the silence. It wraps around him. And although he could pop three tabs as usual, or four, as is even more usual, he just doesn’t. And while he’s still mulling over the decision, he finds he’s already asleep, the evening blue of the lorazepam label fading …
The following few days are touched with a sense of triumph.
Encouraged, he gives nicotine a shot. Oddly, it’s harder to erase than the coke and benzo habits. It’s slippery and deep and it doesn’t go down without a fight. There are manifestations – sometimes nausea, sometimes a stinging hunger; his teeth itch; the hairs of his right arm turn auburn – but still, after a week he can’t even imagine smoking.
They lap it up when he talks about it on morning television. Cigarettes? Filthy habit! “Yes, it’s not easy, Patty, and I had help, but you can’t do anything without willpower …”
More gigs roll in. There’s a gently self-deprecatory sitcom guest spot (he plays himself, charmingly tipsy, wandering into the wrong apartment). An E! News piece. Some voice-acting in the World Wrestling animated series. And Time Warner Inc. are assigning a writer for his autobiography.
He’s an enthusiastic pupil in the sessions with Dr Dianne. He’s a convert. He’s learning the virtues of virtue. It’s a rarefied pleasure, the refined hedonism of denial. He’s overenthusiastic. He tells Dr Dianne he’d like to let the unit have its head, or his, rather. He wants to do a big once-and-for-all spring clean. But she doesn’t like it. “It’s risky,” she says. “One step at a time. Dependencies can piggyback onto other psychological apparatus. There are tangles, deep links, redundancies …”
And so on. He nods appeasingly, and at home, aims the unit at his drinking. Not that it’s an addiction or whatever, at least compared to his other substance issues, but it works. It feels good when, after a day, it’s gone. He feels clear.
Overeating next. He’s always struggled with it, and it’s even trickier than the nicotine – lots of the redundancies Dr Dianne was talking about, ancient pathways from the lizard brain – but when it’s done he’s fine. Better than fine. Sometimes he has to remind himself to eat. The weight just drops away. In a short while he’s looking like an ascetic; ethereally beautiful.
Then comes the big break. He’s cast as Gandhi in the upcoming HBO miniseries remake. It’s incredible. There’s Emmy buzz even before production starts.
He’s busy after this, but still finds time to call Aditi regularly. They talk for hours. About the kids, the Gandhi script. They talk about the Hindu temple riots in Maniktala, and, ah, how he hates to hear the fear in her voice.
He wonders how he could have left her and Lady and Sparrow … did his career really mean that much to him?
The next day, almost idly, looking for something to do, he gives up his television habit. And masturbation. He takes up the sitar instead.
In July, he visits Kolkata on a location recce. India – all the clamour, the glorious filth. Getting into a taxi he sees a splat of birdshit shaped like a spiral galaxy.
There’s an interview with IndiaNews.
He talks about the miniseries, as he’s meant to, but it leads onto a conversation about the sectarian clashes. And it’s exhilarating, the thoughts come of themselves; his intellect is clear; no jangle, no fuzz; he finds, as others have in the past, that words are themselves possessed of intelligence; he finds that if it is used properly, all the brilliance of language itself will come to bear. That it does your thinking for you …
He visits Aditi and the kids. So beautiful. He spends a night with them, then another. The tabloids are agog with talk of reconciliation, and for once they might be right. When he flies back to LA for rehearsals, it’s with the promise that he’ll rejoin them in two weeks.
He experiences the full brunt of his joy.
And when Aditi and the kids are killed in the temple bombings the day after, he also experiences the full brunt of his grief.
HE MISSES THE FUNERAL, and rehearsals, and a session with Dr Dianne. He’s too busy working with the unit, struggling with it. Using it to break the hardest habit of all. The withdrawals are the worst. But pain, physical pain, is a relief.
He keeps at it.
There are all sorts of manifestations. In less than an hour, a Stage II melanoma mushrooms from the skin of his chest. He loses the capacity to see green. His name keeps slipping from him; he has to remind himself what it is. He wonders at his clothes, at his body, at this big, ridiculous mansion around him. His skin is cold and he’s short of breath, a mountaineer approaching the final peak.
And the next day, when Chocolate Prasad comes in to wake him, he’s gone.
He’s nowhere to be found. Later, it’s on the news, but the photos they broadcast are days old. No one would recognise him now.
This is it, his rekava, the end of the line.
He’s free. He’s rid himself of love. He’s naked. He’s in a small rental unit. Just him in there, him and the dinge and the roaches.
He’s on the floor, sitting, busily doing the big spring clean. He’s cleared out the need for speech. And for hearing, and for movement – working his way down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He’s got rid of the desire for sex; for morality; food and for water.
Neon Kumar breathes deep, inhaling the sensation from the base of his skull, letting it slide down his spine, past his throat and lungs and liver, easing into his bladder and colon. He inhales long and deep, confident he can give up this one last addiction too.