The Experiment with the People by Prosenjit Dey Chaudhury

The day was a Monday. A bird alighted upon the shoulder of the living wonder in the town square and watched the proceedings with a scribe’s grave attention. Around eleven o’ clock in the morning the man began to preach a message. By this time the local rulers who met in the white palace of the town had sent their officials to see what was going on in this location. Besides, the seer who commanded influence both with the rulers and with the people had come to find out for himself what was happening.

The people heard the man speak to them of the need to exchange icons, idols and figurines that were respected daily within every house. These objects were not always the same from one household to another, though they might connote the same personality or the same deed. Since they were deemed more precious than anything else within the domestic sphere, the people hesitated before they could come forward and accept the suggestion to exchange these objects. What decided them in favor was really the consent of the seer, who indicated with the token nod of a bemused face that he saw no objection to the proposal at the current time.

The man urging the exchange emphasized to the people, however, that three conditions had to be met in effecting the present transactions: the relics and representations of family ancestors were to be left untouched; all the exchanged items were to be returned to their original place after twelve hours; and, lastly, people were to sing together, pray together and collectively gather inspiration to create lasting works of art.

When the sun had begun to decline in the sky the presence of this bespectacled man on the low platform of the plaza was graced by the immediate company of a few townsfolk known for their unusual or deviant ways. The rest of the large plaza was now packed to the point of stationary closeness, a little short of the stage when suffocation sets in due to compress upon the lungs even if the nostrils have access to clear air. The porches of the encircling buildings were filled with those who wished to remain for as long as the man could be sighted, while in the square proper a sea of heads seemed to be bobbing and moving in contradictory directions.

People were talking in loud and excited voices; a hubbub rose from every section of the square and carried itself to the sky. This was not so different from the din you heard on the opening day of a fresh market, but it had an unusual mark of gaiety in it that conveyed the relieved mood of a holiday long denied. All that mattered was that the voice of the visionary had to be heard and that what he was saying was the way to go about founding a new kind of living. As the shadows lengthened people desired to stay behind for as long as he was up there; the atmosphere in that place was such that it could not be forsaken even for the familiar comforts of home.

He was merely saying the same words over and over again and there was nothing especially dramatic in his gestures, but the voices of those gathered in the square were taking on the high-pitchedness of hysteria even while speaking of day-to-day matters with familiars and strangers. It was the hysteria that builds on itself, feeds on itself and hurls forth itself along a giddying slope. The people were screaming and beating to a fine point plans on how best, in the wake of the exchange of objects, they could come together to rejoice as the present cynosure of all eyes was encouraging them to do. There was eager expectation of the celebrations that were coming with the happy night. It was now well beyond sunset. The visionary made a wave to the people in a gesture of closure and they in turn started to file out of the square. Fireworks began to burst in anticipation of the merry-making. That night people stayed awake into the morning of the next day, clashing cymbals and beating drums, handing one another their worshipped idols, carousing together, praying together, and belaboring wonderful schemes for artistic works. It was a night unlike any that the town had seen. Quite likely the next working day was going to be spent in larking manner under the bewitching influence of that plaza, a fact that did occasion restless sleep to more than one worried person at the helm of authority in the white palace of the town.

When the following day dawned it was quite plain to the most casual observer that a remarkable change had emerged in the psyche of a habitually sober people given to traditional obedience and self-control. There was an effervescence of temperament that found no precedence in the records of the province. The preacher had asked for no more than the execution of certain transactions and his words did lack purpose and meaning; but the people had leaped to put it into effect as if they had waited for just this opportunity so long. They had swapped cherished objects and idols; they had spent much time together in fraternal bonhomie, discussion of cultural projects and anticipation of what the teacher in the town square had still to say. As if by just these simple actions, they were miraculously endowed with a zest to ascend to heaven and bring it to reign upon their glebe in any way that the master should counsel. The home of the other had become a discovery in domestic comfort though one did not go so far as to make free use of other precincts and property.

On the morning of this next day, most of the folk were singing to the tintinnabulation of their little cymbals attached with silken strings and linking arms comfortably with one another. There were tears in their eyes as each sincerely wished for the wellbeing of the other, tears that also sprung from deep remorse at ever having entertained even the possibility of harm to another fellow creature. As the sun rose over the square the visionary had a sufficient audience already to listen to his next words, but he would not begin until the place was teeming to capacity. In the meantime some of the rulers had decided to come and see for themselves what it was that held such sway over a populace whose everyday work and sleep were thrown into absolute neglect. The overweening exuberance in the town had the tones of riotous disposition to those who were used to facile command after passage into office. At one corner of the square, close to the main street that usually carried vehicles and wares, were stationed for the first time a posse of the local constabulary and four cavalrymen on sable chargers.

When the man began to speak again there was a clamorous section of the crowd who wanted him to hear them first. They had something to say regarding the return of the objects that had been lent for twelve hours. This group, however, was in a minority and the noise they were making was out of proportion to their number. The visionary proceeded with the plan he had made for the town. He called now not for the substitution of material products but of authority: the rulers should offer to exchange positions with the people who usually stayed in their households; in return they would receive rice from the people and have their food cooked for them; after a while they could go back to their rule. Whether a position in authority was taken by a customary ruler or by an ordinary person, each would have the freedom to explore every resource available in his domain to enhance his possessions and his happiness.

Though this part of the proposal was not very lucid at the moment, the whole met with reverberating approval from the crowd, which rushed forward to receive the blessings of the preceptor. He would designate those who would be the first to take the places of the rulers. There was understandable concern written on the visages of the men in authority, who were gathered in a bunch a few feet away from the uniformed officers and cavalry. Much as they would like to intervene and reassure themselves that there was no prospect of the sharing of power, the rulers could not really go against the wishes of the people unless the seer gave his permission. He was present at the mouth of the main street with an air of meditative musing about him.

In the course of an hour the visionary had dispensed his approval to a large number of followers for this latest phase of his project. At the same time the boisterous, aggrieved group in the square had grown in number and was demonstrably drowning out the happy cheers of all the others. He could no longer ignore this brawling mass that had been pushing itself forward impetuously to his feet. This was the annoying black spot that refused to go away in the whole affair—the pertinacious belief of some that they had not been given a fair deal though they had themselves been honest all along. It was a little before midday and many more people were expected to enlist in the experiment before the close of day. Well, it was time to dispose of the matter and, if necessary, admonish the stubborn roistering group for its foolishness.

So the visionary set about the task in right earnest. He set his glasses a little farther on the bridge of his nose. For the time being his pursuit was one of condescension toward some cankered creatures who would not heal unless subjected to persuasion and a measure of ridicule. Once this quite unnecessary diversion had been put aside, he could return to the more serious endeavor in hand. As a matter of fact, the throng that was bounding at the low platform displayed a vehemence and an ardor that, were they not of the species of meteoritic flashes, might well rival the more stable energy and determination that the visionary had succeeded in evoking in a greater number of people for the common good. When with his gestures and adjurations he had brought the noise to a decently susurrating level, one angry charge after another was thrust up against the other side that was party to the round of exchanges. In a number of instances the other side itself was present and had a similar charge to prefer in turn.

It was told how upon their return it was noticed that the revered objects of the prayer room, which had been handed over in such deference, were smeared, faded, defaced, wrinkled, withered, lightened, dampened or corrupted. This horrible fact was apparent from the moment the items came back into the hand from which they had parted. Without the utterance of a single word other members of the family had understood that what had been given back was considerably altered from what they were accustomed to seeing. The dark deed was too arrant to overlook or pardon; surely the master who had come to the town to bring a glorious reign for the people would arraign the wrongdoers and restore the materials to their true worth. These bewailing folk shunned the idea of blaming him directly for what had allegedly taken place; the growing euphoria that was running like a contagion through the town was just too heady to relinquish with a gesture of that kind. The fault for the despicable outcome must lie with minds that were always plotting and scheming rather than the preacher himself.

By now the visionary had caught on to the realization that the path to the resolution of these ruffled tempers lay in the production of the very items that were at the centre of the disputes and that these were indeed in the possession of the yelling mass before him. He shouted a general order to the crowd to yield up the objects for minute objective scrutiny. From little osier baskets with taut, loop handles, a plethora of hands brought out the idols and figurines that had been returned to them under the terms of the exchange. The time had dragged on wearily to mid-afternoon and it was exacting a toll on the progress of the real experiment.

It was easy to dispose of the arguments in those cases distinguished by a unilateral suit, where the partners in the exchange had no ground for a like complaint. The baskets had only to be opened and held out in the sun for all to see that there was nothing really amiss with the contents. The visionary moved along the platform with the open baskets and invited the plaintiffs and anyone else to point out any discrepancy in the appearance, make, volume and composition of the venerated objects. No one really had anything to say on this score and these cases were summarily closed. But the issue could not so speedily be settled in the presence of mutual denouncement. For even when evidence was demanded of ill-use there was persistent gesticulation toward the other side and insistence upon the claim that this side had sullied the objects while holding them for the twelve hours. Matters were not helped by the refusal in this instance to make the least concession that error had been committed in reading the state of the returned items. Among those in the crowd were some who bethought themselves of a grievance even if they could not make any overt accusation.

At this stage of the proceedings a certain blaze was kindled that would always stay in the town. Under the dazzling sun of a cloudless sky on a winter afternoon, the mutually denouncing groups forgot everything they had ever done or had to do and instead gave themselves up to hoarse, sweating denunciation of their fellow citizens, seeing everything in the aspect and comportment of the latter to reiterate their stand that their household objects had forsooth been tarnished. It did not happen all at once but built up in the same manner as substances from the core of the earth jostle themselves implacably and make heated knocks at the crust before bursting forth with such fiery proclamation as to make their presence felt for a long time after.

Beholding any one of that screeching, hysterical mob with its upturned fists, throbbing veins and famished cries, one might have decided that the immediate provocation was the like appearance of the other party in the same mob that was showing its teeth and holding up its fists in turn. To the other party, it went without saying, the fodder for the fire came from the first party. There was nothing to consider but the belief that wrong had been done and that the culprit was before the eyes; the effect was perfectly symmetrical and reciprocal, if not kinetic, in its impulse as the ticking minutes sped away to what was likely to be a consuming detonation.

In the frenzied convulsions of their bodies and the viperish grating of their throats, people found their own clothes pressing on them and buttons and hooks snapping out. They stopped not a whit. They grew dizzy and fell fainting in the midst of their acrimony, their spite and their vituperation; they recovered to resume from where they had broken off. The visionary stood still with a meek air; there was nothing he could do except to hope for an end to it all soon. Those of the discontented who had been put to ease by the efforts of the preacher began to take warmth from the blaring inferno that was burning away in their presence without the help of wind or tinder; they began to believe that after all there might have been something in the notion that they had been duped in the transactions. The same thought came to those who nursed a hurt from a forgotten time although they had no proof of foul play on the other side.

The sun was beginning to go down behind the dipping roofs of the buildings that used to be colonial offices. The seer finally put up his hand and waved it in a gesture of acute deprecation of the disgraceful incidents taking place in the square. But the light that was once shining so prominently in the eyes of the visionary had already been on the wane and for some time now was completely extinguished. He could not be troubled about the behavior he had witnessed if it could be regarded as an isolated affair, but to his mind the strong manners of the minority had serious implications for everybody’s behavior in general if the experiment were to proceed. Even before the men in authority signaled to the uniformed men to move in and empty the square, the preacher and teacher turned away from the people and at the same time the bird on his shoulder rose to depart in the direction it had come. He had a plan to carry a procession through the town in celebration of the order that was to emerge, but instead he would vanish in the night.

For a moment his departure and the accompanying lament from the majority in the square seemed to beat some sense into the rankled minds that had brought him down. It was, however, too late: the constabulary were moving rapidly through the crowds and urging swift dispersion with their batons at the ready, while the horses stood prepared to charge in at the slightest notice. In any event, the brawlers would pause only to take breath and then return to their homes without the least change in the opinions they held of their partners and neighbors.

The people walked back to their homes under a sky that was paling after turning a blazing red. In that sky was impressed, as if indelibly, the image of a departing bird with wide wings. They walked back slowly but they were not thinking of anything. They were just a little uncertain about the immediate future. There would be no celebrations tonight but only perfunctory meals followed by sleep. Even in the middle of their sleep, they were able to make a wish that the coming morning might be different from all other mornings. Yet, when the morning arrived, it was filled with placid sunshine and brought no signs of a departure from the accustomed. Putting on their shirts and buttoning them, the people returned in silence to their usual toil within the confines of the ordinary white walls of their offices.

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About the Author

In North America, Prosenjit Dey Chaudhury has published his fiction and nonfiction with the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Wilderness House Literary Review and other journals. Although holding a doctorate in economics, it is literary adventures that concern him for the moment. Presently established in Montreal, he is completing a narrative that dwells on sights, sounds, tastes, colors, voices, vistas, journeys and people of his previous country, India, in the context of a less flurried past. He looks forward to writing an account of a personal voyage through peri-urban and peri-wilderness Canada.