Nabina Das takes us through a different tunnel of “Alice in Wonderland”.
When Alice got out of the rabbit hole, she found the little big bush town to be quiet and uneventful as ever. Hushed voices, indolence and early dinners. Just the way she had left it.
The place derived its name from very tall bushes that closely dotted the area. These were reeds that grew taller than anyone could imagine and swayed in summer and dried up in autumn and rustled in a strange way. Outsiders presumed that the town had been deliberately fenced off by tall reed bushes. In reality, no one had actually planned that. The bush town came up on its own, without a conscious design, but primarily because no one ever ventured to clear the reeds. They grew wild and relentless and were accepted by the residents as integral to their lives.
Coming out of the rabbit hole was at first refreshing for Alice. She was surprised to discover that people still remembered her name. Some waved at her and smiled at her. She was, in fact, almost a pop icon, her picture prominently displayed on street posters. The reasons she could guess, although she never expected that to happen.
Sniffing the fresh air, Alice decided to take a tour of the place she knew so well but had sorely missed for long. She had no sense of the length of time she spent inside the choking hole. She looked around for her companion cat that had come out ahead of her. In a street swept by fallen leaves, the cat was playing hide and seek with an imaginary rabbit. Alice recognized him, all of dappled cotton ball, cuddlesome and harmless. It was he who had led Alice through the darkness of the hole – a hole she remembered vividly and cared never to visit again.
Summer was on the wane and trees looked thin. As Alice walked down the wide road, where most people seemed to take walks or meet friends or carry out a business, she saw a plaque at the end of the road. It shone like a sign – a sign that leads or stops.
It was early morning – one could tell by the slanting young shadows – and the rain had stopped momentarily. The cat came scampering over soaked leaves to snuggle at Alice’s heels. It rolled and walloped to run after the invincible adversary rabbit again. While doing so, it dropped its dark hat and slid on its yellow galoshes several times. Alice smiled, for the first time in a long while. The cat’s behavior was not new to her. He had been with her in the rabbit hole all this long, visiting unknown places and getting lost in unfriendly streets. He behaved funny at times, and at times he mewed in a grim tenor and menaced those that he encountered.
Walking down in small unsure steps of a newcomer, Alice met someone she knew before she went down the rabbit hole. It was Chablis, the businessman about town. He knew everyone around and usually when he came around to meet someone, it never turned out to be a pleasant encounter. No one really liked Chablis despite his engaging smile and the ability to quip fast. He always carried around a shoulder bag. Townspeople said he carried questionable wares in his bag to barter and sell. He had rather shocking ideas that he imposed or passed on while meeting people who were caught unawares. In bush town where everyone knew what Chablis did or said, no one liked spending any time with him. Alice knew that too.
“Morning, Alice! So you’re back, I can see.”
“Chablis, a very good morning to you. Well, I just got out of the rabbit hole. I hope you knew about my predicament,” Alice said, not feeling particularly friendly.
“Oh, oh.” Chablis tried to be amicable with a grin that was sticky like stale gum.
“Ah … I remember the day you fell into the rabbit hole, dear Alice,” he said. “I was heartbroken and alarmed too. I was worried about you as well as about those hundreds of souls inside the hole. It’s not common for them to have such unlikely visitors such as you.”
Certainly, Alice remembered that day – the day she fell into the rabbit hole. What a day it was. Spring had just burst forth with its wares, colors and aromas. Trees and shrubs had happily donned their green outfits and did not forget to wink at the sun now and then. Flocks of deer had come out of the woods to lick the remaining permafrost on the side of narrow pathways. Robins usually liked to call this season their own and so they watched out zealously for common sparrows to prevent them from coming in to just play around on new grass. Even the usually uninvolved tall reed bushes rustled with merry anticipation as frost gave way to warm sunshine. And Alice stepped out in the streets of the little bush town after a long winter retreat, heading downtown.
The rabbit hole was smack in the middle of this downtown area where children assembled after school, parents shared local gossip with each other, businesspeople walked by scheming for the next day or enticing customers, lovers strolled with disinterested gazes, unleashed dogs picked up fights with other dogs, students drank their strong espresso, and people like Chablis snooped around. No one in the town really bothered much about the rabbit hole. Residents knew it was a shame that the hole was there, huge and ugly, but somehow they were happy to ignore its presence.
That spring day, curiously, there were a few others like Chablis lurking around in downtown. Dondokai G., the jailor, Cameroun Polosi, the town mayor, Father Virat Maxim, the local priest, and Arunima Emery, the local business leader – were all present there that day. It was unusual to see so many important town personalities gathered in one place at the same time in little bush town, especially when the cause merely was a bright spring day. Soon Alice found out the reason for the congregation.
Sonnenschine, the local activist, was holding a rabbit hole run protest.
The idea was simple. All followers of Sonnenschine would gather around the rabbit hole after children came out of schools in the afternoon and their parents waited in the fresh spring sun, munching trail mixes and speaking in various European languages. Then in full view of everyone the protestors would begin their ‘rabbit hole run’. One by one, they’d slip into the rabbit hole for just a few seconds and emerge again to tell people how horrible things were down there. It was planned to be a very organized show of anguish where it was expected that watchers would join in as well. The strategy was sound.
Sonnenschine was a veteran of protest shows. Like a theater professional, he judged his location, timing, ambient conditions as well as the mood of his audience before launching a protest show. He seldom went wrong in his planning. Every night, like a poet in agony, he wrote his protest plans on sheets of paper and discard them if he was unhappy. He needed adequate creative time to chalk out a protest plan for which he supposedly sacrificed food and drinks for days. He pondered and scribbled for hours on what he thought would turn out to be his next best protest show. The ‘rabbit hole run’ was one of them.
Sonnenschine was a semi-honest man for he never profited from his passion. But in terms of fame, he got invited to forums and talk shows, to conduct protest shows elsewhere with other groups and even to lecture students on new-mode protests in radical universities. Sonnenschine actually earned his living as a poet for one half of the year – throughout winter. With spring he became active in staging protests in various parts of the country on a multitude of topics. He wasn’t a vastly popular man but he enjoyed some credibility among those that believed in his causes. He believed that in answer to organised religion and organised rule of law, where law is defined by only one entity, there should be organised lawlessness and organised anarchy. He was passionate about his belief. Very few people knew by the way that his real name was Sonkar-Borkar. Named after the well-known movie Sonnenschine, he seemed to have gained an international clientele, if one could use that word.
The slip-in into the rabbit hole had come as a quickly executed decision. There wasn’t enough time for people to fathom what went on in the hole, he told his followers. Only a swift slip-in or run could bring to people the sense of what went in there. So, there he was, Sonnenschine, on one fine spring afternoon with his loyal band in downtown, conducting the rabbit hole run protest show.
Looking around, Alice wondered now if people still remembered what the rabbit hole was all about after such brouhaha in the past. As she walked down the street instead of an autumnal glow in the air, a rather nagging rain had turned trees dirty brown, it was hard to know if people still cared about the despondency that once surrounded the issue. And it wasn’t that long ago. Or was it? While shielding her face with her right hand as if from fine invisible raindrops, she tried remembering the day of the protest show when Sonnenschine and his faithful followers had reached the vicinity of the rabbit hole.
Parents had stopped gossiping seeing them come and kids thought it was another of their special after-school activities, often conducted out in the open. They were not to blame because their art teacher and gym instructor were there too.
Sonnenschine was the first person to slip in. He came out of the hole in about ten seconds with loud cheers greeting him. Then there were three or four more who jumped in. By this time the crowd had gained in size and there was some eagerness among the people to participate and share experiences. Men were seen bragging about how deep down they went and felt no scare. Women went down too and came out cheered as heroines. Kids pestered their parents to let them in, for they were hopeful of finding rabbits down in the hole. The art teacher was frantically sketching the gathering in her sketchbook with some older children looking over her shoulders trying to learn the straight lines, the curves and forms. The gym instructor, a robust man in his late-twenties, visibly disliked the adulation that was being showered on the men who dived in and emerged of the rabbit hole. He sniggered and hesitated, unsure whether to be a part of the whole frenzy.
By this time, about a few hundred had gathered at the spot and the sun had come out creating a mesmerizing halo around every protestor’s perspiring face. People who had dared the run, shared anecdotes of what they saw down there, but it was increasingly clear that no one ventured real far. After all, the reputation of the rabbit hole was not that of an easy place. Alice had certainly heard stories about the hole earlier and had felt moved by the accounts. That spring afternoon, she was a little curious about the events around the rabbit hole, a spot people shunned out of disdain, fear or embarrassment.
She stepped up closer to the crowd and saw Sonnenschine answering a reporter’s question while wiping beady sweat from his brows. His tanned skin glistened and his wind-bleached flaxen hair created a golden aura around him.
“That man is so earnest,” said an onlooker, a young woman, right behind Alice. She was a local poetess who recently won an award for standing outdoors for 20 hours at a stretch and writing countless love poems. A unique sort of a record it was. Alice was almost sure that the poetess Roshana was half in love with Sonnenschine. And why not? Roshana went for men who were public figures and specifically, the type who were rebels with several causes. “Oh hello, Alice, nice to meet you here.” Roshana greeted Alice in a surly tone as she turned around to look at the poet. Alice wished to be polite and so she smiled back at the poetess with brown curls and eyes like liquid glass mixed with a dash of pale ale. Roshana was a good-looking woman, probably just what Sonnenschine would prefer. She would write a poem everyday for him, thought Alice, and that seemed quite normal somehow.
“Well Roshana, I was just passing by. Then I saw the crowd. I’m not quite familiar with what Sonnenschine does, so I was watching,” Alice replied.
“I agree,” Roshana said wryly. “It’s always good to watch Sonnenschine. He’s always so well meaning. I wonder sometimes if that exposes him to the wrong kind of people.” Her tone was becoming glacial.
Alice decided to leave the jealous poet’s side and move ahead in the milling crowd. New converts by then had taken up the rabbit hole run protest in full gusto. The cavity looked like a menacing little swimming hole – designed as if for an oversized golf ball – where one by one men and women were going in for a short dip and disappearing like spent bubbles. Then again they emerged as if out of a maelstrom – their eyes wide open, hair ruffled, limbs hanging limp from the joints. The westerly sun kept spinning a radiant wheel that threw the leftover threads of light over the hole making it look deeper, darker and more mysterious.
“Okay folks, I went down there.” The shrill voice of Cameroun Polosi, the mayor of bush town, rang out. “And I want to tell you all what I encountered.” Cameroun was known to be an imposing woman and if anyone wondered about her unusual name, she harangued them on subjects of choice and stereotypes and social roles. She was pleasant to those that abided by her reasons, although there was something pompous in her nature in an ordinary way. She dressed shabbily in old woven robes, rode a bike to the mayoral office, drank weak tea with her personal secretary twice a day regularly, and wore her dull hair in a fringe over her forehead. She smiled a lot while she spoke but grimaced too quickly to any adverse opinion. As mayor, she was always interested in the latest happenings about town and being a natural leader she wanted to be at the forefront.
People believed Cameroun, for she had a quiet assertive way of establishing her arguments. So, they listened.
“Friends, the condition is unbearable there. I went down really far and I met a weeping mother clutching a dead baby in her arms. I believe there are more down there who we have rendered homeless and even killed by our cruel mission.”
Her statement sounded like a printed line out of an official script for the state of the bush town address.
Father Virat Maxim nodded his head in agreement with Cameroun. He too had slipped in right before the mayor. Not exactly an orator, the priest simply shook his head when he came out of the rabbit hole. He clutched his crucifix and sighed several times, bereft of words. People around hugged him in consolation. No one liked to see a seventy-year old pastor weep and sniffle.
“Cameroun, is the path down there dark?” Alice asked her. She was now at the head of the crowd gathered near the mouth of the hole. And curious as she was, she did not like the sight of the rabbit hole.
“Now, now Alice, are you planning to go down as well?” asked Arunima Emery, the town’s business leader. She wasn’t sympathetic to the ongoing show but made sure she had first-hand knowledge of it all. In fact, she was scornful of the people who found time to gather in an idle pursuit, which, in her worldview, translated into a massive economic loss. She knew Alice from various projects they had undertaken together from time to time in the town. Every time someone emerged from the rabbit hole, Arunima winced.
“Ah, what a waste, what a waste,” she murmured loudly.
Town jailor Dondokai G. joined in her murmur by exclaiming in a raucous voice: “For the love of God, no, Alice, you are NOT going to be a part of all this.”
“Well, in fact, she might as well,” said Mayor Cameroun. “It is unique to have someone like her try it out. She is representative of our apolitical public, ensnared by a hostile government and embattled in life.”
The debate was heating up, especially with Cameroun and Arunima – two longtime rivals – face to face in the public arena. Alice wasn’t quite sure how to stop the squabble. But her curiosity grew. She inched closer to the dark and deep rabbit hole. Sonnenschine walked up to her.
“Alice, now that you are at the rabbit hole, don’t you think it is better to find out for yourself,” he said gently, with the latent art of a director who pursues a reluctant actor. “All of us have gone in and seen everything. It is as clear as daylight.”
“Seen everything?” Said Alice. “So am I not going to say just the same things as the others? Does the rabbit hole need me?”“It needs me,” chirped an indignant voice. Roshana the poetess could not stay away from her favorite man. She detested that Sonnenschine should spend time pursuing or talking to Alice. Roshana’s brown curls looked fiery in the evening sun and her brown eyes sparkled with unspoken jealousy. “I won’t hesitate a moment to go down there, Sonnenschine,” she said with a touch of plea in her voice.
The two elderly officials, Cameroun and Arunima were still trying to second-guess each other as to what Alice would do. Father Maxim looked on like a lost Jesus, not knowing who to console or calm down. Perplexed parents in the crowd held on tight to their kids’ shirt collars or frock ends so they wouldn’t run amok. Bands of Sonnenschine’s followers and volunteers who had all slipped in to the rabbit hole and come out wide-eyed and sweaty, itched to get along with their sloganeering. The art teacher loved this specific moment when everyone stood stupefied, allowing her the liberty to rapidly sketch each face and the emotions.
“Well then,” said Roshana with a tone of finality. She needed to impress Sonnenschine. This was her moment. She shut her eyes dramatically, raised her face skywards as if in an evocation, and spread her arms like an albatross. Her thin alabaster arms quivered, her fragile frame trembled, and her face could not hide the anxiety that was bubbling up inside her.
Right then, the cat appeared. Out of nowhere. There was a dark hat on its head, a little tilted, showing his algae green eyes. He was wearing a pair of yellow galoshes, similar to workmen’s boots. He crept up right next to Alice. Roshana of course, couldn’t see him. In a matter of seconds, the cat snuggled near Alice and tugged at her skirt hem.
“Quick,” he whispered. “You don’t want to delay this.”
“Am I going down the rabbit hole?” Alice mumbled.
“Bet you are,” the cat said. “And it’ll be a trip like no one has undertaken.”
“Wait, I’m nervous,” said Alice, trying to free her dress from his claws.
“Alice, you can’t lose this opportunity.” The cat almost hissed now. “You’ll have to tell them the true story. Now come on in.”
Alice felt herself being dragged rather effortlessly to the mouth of the hole. While the evening sun was busy distributing its final rays across the skies, Alice looked around at the crowd. It was all a mélange of eyes and mouths – gaping and skewed, awestruck and anguished. As the cat pulled her down in that unknown abyss, her last glimpse was that of Roshana. She had, by then, sensed something gone awry because of the deep silence of the gathering. Words were stuck in her throat and her mouth was livid. Sonnenschine’s hand had reached out to her so as to prevent her from following Alice into the mysterious crater.
In the next moment, it all became a blurry vision of darkness sliced with a strange light, like innumerable crackers flashing in a cosmic night sky. This unearthly night itself was like an inky whirlpool with swaths of motions perpetuating its darkness. Alice’s legs thrashed around hopelessly aiming to find a firm landing spot while her arms flailed about her fast moving being. The outside world vanished at a swift pace, represented by a diminishing luminous dot that sometimes floated up above and sometimes sideways. In any case, the dot fast faded away while the hungry dark whirlpool dragged her down down down.
Alice ignored nosey Chablis and decided to walk ahead till the end of the road. Unfazed, Chablis chattered on like an errant fly buzzing on a glass pane, a little befuddled by Alice’s indifference. For some reason he sensed that her comeback was after all not something that will pass away quietly.
“Really, Alice, there’s no point in going till the end of the road.” He droned off. “Sonnenschine is no longer interested in stuff he did a year ago, and anyway, we’d asked you to stay away from the rabbit hole, remember?”
So, it’s already been a year, thought Alice. Could time be such a bleary, blighted thing if one got stuck inside the rabbit hole?
Her pace finally brought her to the long road’s end. This was where feisty Sonnenschine had started off his campaign of leading residents’ groups to the rabbit hole last year. Marches had begun here with slogans and festoons and singing and clapping. Right now some early orange leaves lay strewn over the place. The cat in yellow galoshes, following Alice all this while, dashed off again to play with falling leaves and yelled in excitement: “Alice, Alice, come run with me.”“Haven’t I done enough of that already?” Alice said. “I mean, after we’ve been through a tour of that hellish hole, what else?”
“That’s right Alice, my sentiments too!” said Chablis quickly, who had continued to follow her. “No point spending time at this godforsaken street corner. We can catch a coffee together if you please, right now. My treat!”
Alice couldn’t hear anything Chablis said. She didn’t notice that there was a small crowd following them ever since she’d emerged from the rabbit hole and started walking. The playful cat grew somber all of a sudden, just the way it used to be inside the hole – unpredictable and snappy. It snarled at Chablis and sniggered at the crowd behind.
Alice stopped at a plaque at the dead end. It read: “A journey started here. It collected hundreds in its wake. It took them to the edge – over where so many had fallen. It shone light on utter darkness that stormed us past. But it could not bring the unfortunate back home.”
As Alice stood reading the script, a loud murmur rose from the crowd behind. Sonnenschine, the old war-horse, had stepped forward. He walked with Roshana who carried an infant in her arms. One whole year had taken his life to other spheres – from poetry to protest shows to bringing up a family. There was still that fire in his eyes.
“Tell us what you saw Alice.” Sonnenschine whispered.
Chablis looked nervous and began signaling to someone far off. But the crowd began pushing him and leaving him behind. They all wanted to hear Alice speak. The cat rubbed its furry paws against her bare calves.
“Tell them, there was no rabbit down there; tell them how darkness swallowed us up; tell them of the blood red rivers; tell them how night ruled and voices drowned. Tell them everything Alice.”
Alice tried picturing that immense bleakness she went through where she saw others twist in agony. The sky was a big hollow, while the ground on which she landed like a discarded rag doll, was full of stench. No grass grew there, no birds sang. There was no telling if it was spring somewhere else. Her limbs felt putrid and there were no living, loving eyes around her. She tried remembering the shrieks and moans – they came from the condemned. If she ate anything there, she felt as if dust choked her throat. Rains only turned the soil murkier. Now, Alice hesitated and reflected. How would she tell people that she had seen no form there, no life and no hope?
The day she had slipped into the rabbit hole, she had gone farther than anyone else. It was as if the hole suddenly woke up to its own life and dragged Alice deep down. No one ever saw or reported what she experienced in that abyss. She and her companion cat, together they went from field to field, shore to shore, and from house to house. And miraculously, they were back now.
“Tell us … ” Voices rose like a high wind in the reed jungle.
“They’re dead.” Alice knelt down at the plaque. “And you too are dead, because you led them to that violent end. I’m dead, I’m a shadow of myself, raised from that hell.”
She stopped to listen to the leaves murmur. The rabbit hole had no living leaves, she remembered.
“We mourn the dead here as the dead,” she said. “All men, women and children here are already gone and dissolved. You’ll know as years go by, but now is when you can truly mourn it. The rabbit hole has no end, no edge and no destinations to name. In war, with your neighbors, with your acquaintances, with strangers, with enemies, with faceless people, you’ve created the most everlasting peace – that is Death.”
A high wind rose. No one noticed the cat turn back and tiptoe towards the rabbit hole. His black hat tilted to the right and his yellow galosh-clad feet almost noiseless on fallen leaves, he sauntered in that direction leaving Alice and the town folks to mull their fate.