The Blue Midnight Tunnel

The Blue Midnight Tunnel

A Story by shibu thomas
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Written in the style of Magic realism, this short story follows twins as they embark on an escape from the womb, to join their family, in the southern Indian state of Kerala

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The Blue Midnight Tunnel 

By ‘Shibu’ Varughese Thomas


I was born in the night and the night gave me its color. I was wrapped within a blanket of darkness and that darkness never left me. Moths danced upon a flickering oil lamp as my pregnant mother screamed upon the galaxy and rats came to steal from my grandmother’s cupboard. As for the cow with only one horn, with eyes that never closed? Well, it simply lay there, munching its hay, munching and munching, and shaking its one-horned head with ferocity. 

When I was born, my poor mother shouted like one possessed by a demon, flinging curses so razor-sharp all the dancing fireflies of Kerala fluttered away.  Oh yes, and there were mosquitoes who heard the scream.  Millions of mosquitoes came through the coconut trees, overflowing our hill. They had swept all over the land, sucking the blood of all that slept, for it was night and Kerala nights are sleepy. 

My poor, sweet mother swayed her head in labor and spoke in strange tongues. As for me, I rolled about sleepily in her amniotic sac, sucking my tender thumb and gently extending my toes. When my mother opened her quick eyes and saw the thatched roof, wet and heavy from the rains, she imagined the roof would explode into wood, green leaves, and blue winds upon her face. I was a torrent inside her womb, tormenting her with kicks and punches. Three midwives surrounded her and attempted to calm her panicking body. Within my mother’s womb, time was unmoving. Now and then I would kick my mother and then I would laugh heartily (it was hilarious at that age, playing within the womb). Sometimes I would shout so loud many rats came scampering with renewed excitement to steal from my grandmother’s cupboard again. And the cow with eyes that never closed? Well, it simply refused to blink, munching on its hay, munching and munching, and shaking its one horned head melodiously as my mother yelled in  agony, cursing the biblical Eve for biting that distant forbidden fruit. 

At first, I thought I was alone, but then I felt the breath of another child breathing on my glossy neck. I turned my face sideways to watch this tiny creature. That was the first time I noticed her innocent and curious face, her black diamond eyes, and hand's that floated and danced in that steaming pool of creation. Her legs swam over her umbilical cord as she felt the walls for an opening through which to escape. It is incredible when I think of it now, that before life began, she was with me�" two tiny, cellular structures pounding for life from the heart of one mother. Smiling, she introduced herself to me, with a “Hey you.” 

“Yes?” I replied. 

“How are you?” she asked. 

“Fine. And you?” 

“I’m all right. By the way, dear brother, what is your name?” 

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “They haven’t given me one yet. If they have, they’ve kept me quite in the dark about it.” 

Then we were silent because we did not really know what else to say to each other, and because we had no idea what we were doing there. It was a silence that lasted for a long time, in which we could do nothing but stare at the walls of tissue. What were we expected to do with these legs, these arms, or our minds? Why is it that we even had a leg, or an arm, or a mind? Why were we so fortunate? From inside our mother’s womb, we heard the adults talking. Oh yes, friend (nod, nod), it’s true. We could hear everything (now my sister nods her head as well to tell you that what I’m saying is true.). 

We heard different people speak to each other in a very adult sort of way that impressed us and sometimes made us laugh. We learned to identify people by the tones of their voices. It was from the voice of my father telling childhood jokes to cheer up my mother that we first learned of humor.  We started giggling in utopian bliss at his outspoken, silly thoughts. Well, he really was such a comical man, our father, our Acha (which explains his claim that I was laughing when I first laid in his arms). He was always making everybody in the family holler with booms of laughter.  Unknown to him, he kept us giggling and weeping in that womb. At one of his jokes, we beat our hands on the floor of tissue, held our chuckling bellies, crying with laughter, shouting to our Acha with outstretched palms, “Acha, oh Acha, please stop. We don’t want to die laughing so naked and undignified like this.” 

Our mother started screaming from the pain of our drumming, forcing our father to tell stranger jokes. This caused us to pour forth even more laughter, pounding our hands even wilder, bringing tears to our mother’s face in a treacherous and mad cycle that left my mother crying and my poor father feeling helpless and confused. 

He was a soldier, my father. He walked away with bewilderment written across his face, past the figurine of an aching Yesu Christu hanging on a cross upon the blue wall, towards the empty wooden cradle he built with his own hands. His uniform, shining with medals, hung on a hanger beside the door. The cradle was tied to the strong wooden plank on the roof with two thick rugged dark ropes upon which the black ants with thin antennae crawled. He continued to rock the empty cradle and he worried about an uncertain birth. Outside, the angels of our ancestors skipped and hopped about the hidden magical forest of darkness. From inside our mother’s womb, we heard the adults talk. Sometimes we grew serious, when we heard the adults speak of E.M.S. Namboodiripad and his Marxist faction of the Kerala Communist Party, or when they spoke of the war with Pakistan. From inside our mother’s womb, we shouted and we screamed! We tried to tell them that war was not the answer, that we should forgive and forget, that humanity was equal, not in poverty, but in opportunity. We should never end up bitter prisoners of our own history. The adults kept talking as though we would never be born, while the same one horned descendent of that Indus cow shook its head with melodious ferocity. 

In those silent moments with my sister inside our mother’s womb, I sat and pondered over many fleeting thoughts. What sort of world would society leave us? Would they burn it down before we have a chance to view its diverse marvels? Would they craft enemies that we must inherit? Would they set up destructive rules that we must pass on to other generations, or would we inherit a social contract that is fair and just to all?  When did this evil of war and hate begin?  Did it exist amongst the first humans, bracing down the branches of trees with small circles of stones to provide them a hut, and exploding the red sparks of fire that would propel their progeny to great civilizations? In the end, I came to the conclusion that ethics, science, and rationality were an evolution to all mankind - without national boundaries - to be guarded from the cruel ignorance of our own kind. It was while I was thinking these childish thoughts that I felt a vibration within my mother’s sac. The embryonic walls rumbled. I looked over to my sister and asked her, “Did you feel that, dear sister?” 

“Feel what, brother?” my sister replied. 

“That shaking!” I said. “I think it was a shaking.”

“Please brother kutta, stop making up stories. I didn’t feel a thing!” 

“I’m not making up stories. I felt a tremor! I think it is time, sister, for our leap into that vast enigma of ephemeral life!” 

My sister stared at me, puzzled, rolled her eyes, and in an irritated tone, asked me, “Really now, must you always talk like that?” 

Then, a louder earthquake knocked her into silence. Her thoughtful eyes darted around in fear, blinking with questions, and then she looked over to me. “See?” I answered to the unasked question in my sister’s eyes. “I wasn’t making it up!”

 “Oh my,” she whispered to me in fear, staring back at the walls of tissue which shuddered from the vibrations. “Something very strange is happening.” Our sac tore, opening a narrow tunnel into another world so bright we were forced to shut our eyes. Within the realms of that fantastic creation, we suddenly understood instinctively what it was that we must do. There was a cruel yet necessary gene in our body named Survival that was activated by this light. It was this gene that gave us our mission in life, which is to endure or perish. 

We clashed within the womb to be the first one out. It was never personal, simply the business of Survival. We fought like young tigers, like the metal depictions of those fearsome beasts waiting to pounce, as seen on the imperial seals of the mighty Chola dynasty, that invincible empire of dangerous Tamil warriors who destroyed their enemies as quickly as their craftsman could build them battle axes. With hateful ferocity, we clashed and gnawed, clawing and biting each other’s necks. Like maniacs, our eyes began to burn with the hunger to win. In our battles, we shook our mother’s womb into a froth of blood. Like warriors, we cut each other down. We were amazed at the unlimited capacity of our cruelty. We were surprised, sad, and hurt that our friends could suddenly become our enemies, breaking into tears because we did not really want to fight.  We continued gnashing each other, still unaware that love was a celebration for all. 

You don’t believe me, do you? 

You say I am a liar? 

Do you insist on your scientific claim that there is no such thing as a survival gene? Do you believe that I am making it all up?  That the unborn child has not yet developed a consciousness to even consider such things as war or survival? Just ask my mother, and she’ll tell you herself. 

“True, true, true,” she hollers at anyone who cares to listen. “These mad children were at war. I know because I felt it in the hollow of my bones.” 

Survival directed me to think for myself, even in the darkness and magic of the womb. For many years, I would attempt to deny this in order to calm my conscience, to keep myself human and allow myself the power of moral authority. When I tried to reach for life, my sister pulled me by my leg and dragged me back inside like a barbarian, for she had in her blood the remnants of a Stone Age Queen. Then she reached out to the precipice of new beginnings, smiled triumphantly back at me with her black diamond eyes, and leapt into the whirlpool of life. She swam through a blue midnight tunnel that was full of stars, meteors, moons, and memories. She was the Bharatanatyam dancer who danced in a temple and seduced men with the flash of her eyes. She entered that strange ether the ancient alchemists claimed could allow my sister to float on a red carpet over the golden deserts like an Arabian princess. My sister came out as a baby in shining tears, overjoyed to see the colorful beauty of this other universe. 

There were smiles on the faces of the midwives as they took my shrill crying sister up into the air. My grandmother smiled, her chubby cheeks a sign of pride. 

Karthav, Bhagvanai,” she called to God with outstretched palms. “Death is her destiny and the ants with thin black antennae will one day carry her away. Until then, allow her peace.” 

My grandmother Aradhana walked over to my anxious father, the soldier, as he held his newborn baby daughter to his chest. Aradhana looked up towards the ants crawling over the metal-framed portrait of my grandfather Sidhardha, who once led young men toward ethereal dream valleys of red apples and children’s blood. She studied his calm, almond eyes and his Kerala-brown skin that fought the cruel bandits of the Deccan Plateau, wrestled mighty giants along the solitary deserts of Rajasthan, and battled ghostly insects in the dreamy jungles of the savage Sundarbans. In the portrait, Sidhardha was wearing his uniform, with the green and black military hat of a warrior, his look, that of a sailor in a far-off tumultuous sea. His portrait hung beside the window, directed toward the magical forest of darkness where mynah birds with saffron melodies hid behind large colorful flowers. 

As the last of the ants fled from the portrait, their antennae still swinging like thin black swords, my grandmother thought Sidhardha was immensely handsome. His arms were folded and his eyes searched for many distant memories, which become saturated in his mind and added to his personal solitude. You see, his large red heart beat to a different rhythm than other men. It is said that he had been around the world on a ghost ship whose sails were torn by the harsh winds of the South China Sea, and that he saw the souls of men as they drowned themselves in the bitter solitude of memories. 

“Oho, listen,” one of the midwives proclaimed. “It’s a girl.”

My grandmother asked, “Is the baby huge?”

“Why no, a tiny one,” the midwife replied, looking at the baby held by my father, displaying to her a smile. 

“Such a strange thing.” Aradhana said. “The way she was, it seemed the baby would be very large.” My grandmother Aradhana blinked her eyes with a questionable thought and became slightly confused at this tiny irrationality. She noticed the midwife (the one with pretty eyes) place a steel cone on my mother belly. The midwife put her ear to one end of the cone and looked confused. 

“I hear another heartbeat!” she said, her pretty eyes flickering in astonishment. They all gasped and fretted and stammered, asking the same question that E.M.S. Nampoodiripad had asked the poor and illiterate of the state. “What is to be done?”

Oh great E.M.S. Namboodiripad! Wise man of the poor1 Great leader of the Kerala Communist party! Zindabad! You represent the early blood and fire of Kerala, dear Sarai. His awesome voice came through my grandmother’s dusty old Phillips radio, placed on the table beside the door. It was huge, the size of a suitcase. It seemed to vibrate, and then it started to shake with the rhythm of E.M.S.’s voice. It was violent now. 

“What is to be done?” E.M.S. Namboodiripad asked the poor and illiterate of the state. “About the poverty and illiteracy? About the lakshaprabhus�"the rich who get richer and richer?” 

Now the radio shook and trembled, vibrating with the terrible anger of one man. Somewhere in an auditorium lit by a solitary sun, Kerala’s mythical leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad stood, showing his bronze face to the world. 

“What is to be done,” he roared, “of the oppression of our minds? What is to be done of the systemic wiping away of our culture? The annihilation of our past? The decadence of this invading civilization? Who took it all away from us, and why?” The intellectuals of Kerala, sitting white haired with sharp eyes, stared at him with pent-up anger and nodded randomly in agreement. 

“Are we not left with bitterness?’ E.M.S. shouted at them slapping the air with his battle-scarred palms. “Of course we are. And hate? Have you not been left with pure crystallized hate? Have you not been left with the devastation of the last two hundred years? The sheer humiliation of this, our history? Where in this land do you see the glory that was once India?” 

Far away, hands waved with hate.  Outraged fists beat on the metal of their chairs, as though they had just seen the pretty Bharatanatyam dancers of Kerala, whose graceful dance of a snake was meant to create ache in the hearts of men. 

“We can do this!” the great leader shouted back. Many distant angry voices drowned out his own voice, as they called out to him, shouting to E.M.S. to tell it again. 

And again.

And again.

 

“We can make Kerala into the glory it once was! We can bring an end to the hunger! We can dream for all of Kerala, and for all of India! There is no reason to live in these miserable swamps of humiliation! Do our lives mean nothing? Are our lives not worth celebrating as well? Where in this country do we see the dignity of our lives?”

 Can you hear the people rise from their blue, metal seats calling out to him? These snowy white-haired old men being led by the Communist Paradise? They shouted with thunderous applause for this cult of a man. Each clap higher than the previous. Can you see the thin, bearded photographer from The Times of India, exploding flashes as he crawled sideways, never taking his focus off this cult of a man, whom some would say would give Kerala its greatest gift; the highest literacy level in the world for any state of a nation. On the other hand, Kerala politics could also be credited for perpetuating the Bandh and Zindabad madness that would destroy the lives of these people for the next few decades (or even those frightening times of the Naxalites, when young Maoists would roam the hills of Kerala, searching for all the titled nobility. They did this so they could pull them into a solitary forest, cut their throats, and leave their bodies to decay in the rivers). Enough of these politicians and revolutions that eventually became just that - a murderous and humorless tamasha. 

While the communists scattered throughout Kerala shouting “Inquilab Zindabad” in festive shouts that reminded one of the overthrow of dictatorships, they explained to illiterate villagers that E.M.S. Namboodiripad had a vision for Kerala. In this vision, he saw that he would bring back glorious days for the people of Kerala.

 At that same time, back in my mother’s womb, I too had a thought, one that was more frightening than love or revolution or war or hate. I called it solitude. I reasoned that at the rate things were moving, I would be stuck within this womb forever. I was afraid that without anyone with whom to talk, or weep, or laugh, I would shrivel and die. Oh eda, I could not hold my fear back for much longer and I yelled and I kicked my mother. I swam, rotating in that sac of amniotic fluid, searching for a way out of solitude, while blue bubbles floated about me. My mother screamed a long velvet echo, and the midwives revolved and revolved in ritual around her, like blood sucking vampires around a sacrificial prey, singing a phantasmagoric midnight song. 

My poor sweet mother, how I hurt her in those days. Please do not blame me! Anybody would have snapped after what I felt. Eda, I was so frightened and vulnerable. My legs were wobbling. My heart was racing. I was so scared I felt like pissing. I felt an exploding pressure between my legs and I crimped my legs together like a wet towel and my face turned blue. 

The ocean arrived to suck me away into its whirlpool of light and liberation�"that blue midnight tunnel through which I saw the twinkling stars and a burning comet, the hate of men and the revolutions of history. One world as it truly is�"an oval marble of blue and white clouds floating oblivious of E.M.S. and his Marxists. Speedily into a black ocean of infinite space that according to one school of astronomical thought, expanded and contracted, expanded and contracted, in continuous cycles, I was welcomed into the world. Like the rhythmic heartbeat of that pretty Bharatanatyam dancer, dancing in her blue midnight sari with golden borders, with the melody of her ankle bells silently tinkling as she took a step forward in the red temple where she served as the most beautiful dancer in all of Kerala, I was welcomed into the world. 

I was welcomed into the world with clasped hands in Namaste, as I reached a dusty room of wooden beds and cheap red saris, where pretty midwives took hold of me, raised me to the still air, and completed their phantasmagoric song with a resolute announcement. 

“Look here edi, it’s a boy. Oh, so cute, no?” My grandmother was relieved and allowed herself to breathe. She begged God in her language, “Karthav, be with these newborns and give them a happy life before you send the ants to take away their bodies.” It was while she was saying this that my own sense of disorientation was disturbed and I felt that sensation between my newborn legs and I pissed (Oh, how embarrassing what your fear can make you do. Really now, how long can you keep it all in?). 

I sprayed right into the midwife’s face, and she gave out a “What? Who? Huh?” She didn’t think I was very cute anymore. She handed me to my grandmother. Well, I really wanted to be with my grandmother anyway�"that ancient woman whom I knew only from the tone of a voice speaking from the other side of my mother’s womb. 

My grandmother took hold of me from those silly midwives and her silver, wet hair fell on me. She carried me close to her bosom. I wanted to sleep there forever. Outside, the dead leaves were swirling into a soft whirlwind, playing the same songs my grandmother whispered into my newborn ears like some quiet orchestra of the most silent violins. It was the same quiet song that Gandhi heard as he tread the villages of India, as he bent down in the beaches of Dandi to break salt and defy an Empire. Was there some silent violinist who played for the students of Travancore as they took to the streets on strike to protest, when civil disobedience electrified the cities of Trivandrum and Kottayam? What song was sung for Sri Narayana Guru, seated cross-legged at the entry of the Vaikom temple, as he preached against the evils of caste with outstretched palms? Did anyone hear that song, when the first Muslims entered India through the Malabar coasts of Kerala, to trade with their ancient ships bringing Islam to India, giving us Muslim neighbors and brothers and sisters to spread the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him)? Did the mountains sing for that lonely Kashmiri Pandit meditating on the icy slopes of the Himalayas, tiny swastikas carved on the rock boulders on both sides of him? Is it not said that it was hope and meditation from which sprung our Vedic Indian culture? 

There was the note of a poignant violin, reaffirmed by the weeping of my sister, her tiny lips yawning like that of a kitten, and those winding dirt roads of Kerala where the lovers of Venice arrived to sing sad songs to each other. Every time you see those flying pigeons of Paris (it’s snowing in magical Paris) flapping over Parisian winds, who are said to be at such peace with the fascinating Europeans that they have learned to feed from outstretched palms, you can also hear that same song of love and hope and truth said to have been sung by Saint Thomas, the Apostle. This is the same Saint Thomas, the doubter, who touched the holy wounds of Yesu Christu of Nazareth, and then believed he had been crucified, and that he was resurrected on the third day, as he was swept into the beaches of Kerala almost two thousand years ago to bring Christianity to India. The Emperor Shah Jahan sang it to himself as he lay dying in the Red Fort beside the wicked ants, staring out to his Taj Mahal, still whispering the songs of affection from his lips for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal who slept like a dead Empress under that marble monument.

Did my father realize it, as the dust that hung in the airless room became a fog of chocolate that sang for us to sleep? When the legendary merchants of Ethiopia arrived in Kerala to trade with the Amazing Jews of Cochin, almost two millennia ago, battling merciless storms and terrible pirates, did they lose hope? Is it not said that they climbed the mast of their merchant vessels to kiss the metal shining Swastika in the palm of their wet hands, and beg from that religious symbol of past blessings as the ancient storms rocked the darkest oceans, hollering the same ballads of life my grandmother sang for me? 

Now that my sister and I are born, may I proceed to introduce ourselves? My name is Sebastian, son of Ashoka, and grandchild of the warrior Sidhardha. My sister here who has the annoying habit of rolling her eyes has been named Kripa, which means blessing, because she was born with her hands clasped in prayer. Then again, being an Indian, it could have been a Namaste (or Namaskaram, or Vanakam, as we say it in the South).

As for my grandmother, she walked outside the house with a tired sigh on her face, past the zigzagging voyage of the ants. With her broom made of dried coconut leaves, she began to sweep away the saffron leaves that gathered about our porch throughout the previous night. 

© 2020 shibu thomas


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Added on January 31, 2020
Last Updated on January 31, 2020
Tags: twins, india, kerala

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