My Good Friend Jojo
I had been living in Room 106 for as long as I could remember. The room had soft-padded pale green walls and a ceiling painted white. There were neither windows nor ventilators – only a single door, which was always locked from the outside. A single fluorescent light was always on, right in the middle of the ceiling.
I hated that white light with a cold seething vengeance. The brightness eroded the peaceful darkness behind my eyelids. And the light burnt with a noise – a humming noise like there was a swarm of angry bees, lurking and hiding behind the light; ready to appear and attack me when the light was switched off. I hated the light but wanted it to stay on forever. My fear of the bees greatly exceeded my hatred of the light.
What was the name of that sad lonely place? I had simply no idea how I happened to end there. Where in the world this place was located – which street of what city? I did not know. I had been living there for so long that I had forgotten so many important things like ‘when’, ‘what’ or ‘where’.
I guess that’s what happens when we stay too long at one place. We become trees. We know ourselves and are aware of our own existence. But we do not know the exact location at which we stand. It is a terrible state of existence or perhaps blissful – terrible because we lack context; and blissful because not knowing everything is bliss.
Three times a day, like Swiss clockwork, a small drawer within the door opened up silently and someone slid in a tray laden with food and medicines. I used to eat the food and take the red, green and white tablets without fail. Why did I do that? The answer is fear. I did it because I was so very afraid.
I was afraid because when I refused to eat or when I flushed the tablets down the toilet, strange men clad in white came in and took me away. They dragged me to a small room and tied me to a narrow metallic bed. A strange contraption was put around my head. One man slightly nodded to someone beyond my field of view; and then the agony began.
Burning white sparks filled my head and seared my brain. I wanted to scream, but I could not. I wanted to move but I could not. I felt a thousand blades inflicting cuts all over my body simultaneously.
The pain did not come in waves. It came and it stayed. It throbbed in and stung each one of the millions of my nerves and it felt as if I was being skinned alive. Muddy tears streamed down my cheeks; while my eyes were wide open – trying to see the invisible demons of pain.
Then suddenly the pain stopped its cruel and merciless onslaught; while the memory of the pain kept on echoing inside my head. I involuntarily relaxed my bladder and felt the warm wetness spreading beneath my legs and groin. There was no embarrassment or shame. There was only relief. There was only relief and fear – fear in case the pain returned and fear which stank rancid and stale in my over-flowing nostrils.
I did not live alone in Room 106. I lived there with my good friend Jojo and I was happy that he was there with me. In fact Jojo has been with me as far as I can remember. He has been like my own shadow – following me wherever I go and being with me wherever I am.
If it was not for Jojo, I would have killed myself a long time ago. He refused to let me go no matter how hard I tried.
‘Not yet my friend….not yet!’ He said softly while snatching the razor blade away from my strong grip.
‘Why the hell not?’ I screamed. ‘I just want to leave.’
‘It is not yet the time for you to go.’ He patted my shoulder. ‘You have to learn and understand more.’
‘Learn and understand?’ I laughed. ‘You must be out of your fucking mind. How can I learn or understand anything within the confines of these padded walls? I cannot see the outside world. I cannot hear it.’
‘Yes true….very true indeed.’ He nodded his head wisely. ‘But this will not be so for long. A day is coming soon when you will learn your final lesson’.
‘The final lesson?’ I asked sarcastically.
‘Learning this final lesson will be your last gift to the universal conscience. You cannot leave before this one final act.’
It was at times like that when I thought of believing what Doctor Morrison often used to say.
‘Jojo is not real Tom. You think he is real but he is not. He is just a figment of your lonely imagination.’
‘Tell me my good Doctor if you please………..What is your definition of ‘real’?’ I asked while enjoying watching the sunlight, filtering through the mosaic window.
‘Reality is a mutually agreed upon observation. Jojo could be real if we both could see and observe him. But I cannot see him despite your insistence that he is sitting right beside you.’ The doctor had his back to the window and the sunlight was making a hallo around his bald shiny head.
‘Perhaps it is just a matter of difference of perspectives.’ I reflected while exchanging a secret smile with Jojo. We both enjoyed these discussions very much.
‘Difference of perspectives?’ The Doctor removed his rimless spectacles and started polishing the lens with his white handkerchief – a favourite hobby of his. ‘Difference of perspectives…….. how?’
‘What if you didn’t know this was a pencil?’ I said while picking up a lead pencil from the small rectangular vase. I rolled it within my fingers and then pointed it at the doctor – the sharp graphite tip directed right in the middle of the doctor’s bewildered eyes. ‘What do you see exactly from your perspective?’
‘I see something meaningless – a small black dot surrounded by a pale white octagon.’
‘Exactly!’ I chuckled. ‘You see something meaningless but I know I am holding a pencil in my hand.’
‘Jojo isn’t a pencil Tom.’ The doctor said while standing up. ‘I am afraid you have to stay with us a bit longer than you expect.
But Doctor Morrison was wrong. Jojo was real – as real as my own self. That no one else was able to see him, was perhaps because of a difference in perspectives.
The day the old turtle in our backyard died, was the day I first met Jojo. I was sitting down on the grass. The dead turtle’s head was on my lap. I was caressing his cold mottled shell and was crying big fat tears of loss.
‘What is wrong? Why are you crying?’ I felt the comfort of his shadow before hearing the words.
I looked up. The sun was in my eyes and I couldn’t see his face clearly. So I squinted my eyes under the semi-curved palm of my right hand. Slowly and gradually his face appeared in focus – a warm smile followed by two dark and shiny eyes under thick bushy eyebrows and unkempt hair. He was a little older than me but dressed and looked exactly like me.
‘I am crying because the turtle doesn’t talk to me anymore. He doesn’t move and he doesn’t laugh. There is something wrong with him and I can’t seem to put it right no matter how hard I try.’ I explained from behind a grey mist of tears.
‘The turtle will never walk and talk again. He will neither laugh nor smile.’ The boy said in a matter of fact tone.
‘But why……?’ I felt a fresh torrent of tears ready to burst forth. ‘What is wrong with him?’
‘Nothing is wrong with him. He is just dead.’
‘What is dead?’ I asked. It was a new word.
‘Dead is when a living being meets death. And death is when a living being completes one journey of life.’ He said while sitting down on the grass besides me.
‘One journey of life?’ I was surprised. ‘Are there more journeys?’
‘Oh yes!’ He smiled at me. ‘There are countless journeys of life – one coming after another. We live to die and we die to live another day.’
‘I hate death.’ I said after a while. ‘I hate it because it makes me sad.’
‘Death is not a time to cry. Instead it is to be rejoiced and celebrated.’ He laughed a small laugh.
‘And why should I do that?’ I felt offended. ‘Death has taken away my friend.’
‘Life doesn’t end with death. It flows on along the flow of the river of time. It flows from one being to another – to be lived and experienced and to be felt and sensed anew.’ He explained kindly.
‘And where has the turtle’s life flowed to?’ I asked with hope overcoming my sadness.
‘Perhaps it has flowed into me. Perhaps I was once the turtle.’ He placed his hand over mine and I sensed warmth.
‘I called him Jojo.’ I pointed at the turtle.
‘I like this name.’ He smiled. ‘You can call me Jojo too. I will be honoured.’
‘It’s good that you no longer want to kill yourself.’ Doctor Morrison smiled at me.
‘Yes!’ I nodded my head. ‘Jojo has convinced me that my purpose has still not been fulfilled.’
‘And what is your purpose?’ The doctor asked, taking notes on his yellow notepad.
‘My purpose is to understand and learn the final lesson.’
‘It is a good enough reason.’ The doctor said without looking up from his yellow notepad. ‘Is there any other reason?’
‘Yes! I am also afraid.’ I shuddered at the lingering memory of pain.
The doctor looked up but didn’t say anything.
‘I am not afraid of the pain alone. Pain comes and passes through like wind passes through the leaves. It is chaos when the cold wind of pain blows but when you stop focusing on the chaos, the chaos of pain becomes the order of peace’. I repeated. ‘I am only afraid of the pain that comes holding the hand of fear. Fear is what stops chaos from turning into order.’
The doctor still didn’t say anything. I looked outside the window of his office. The bright sun reminded me of a summer afternoon from somewhere far away in my past.
‘You are crying again.’ Jojo observed kindly.
That particular summer afternoon I was Tarzan of the Apes and was trying to climb the mango tree in our backyard. The climb was going quite well actually. It would have been perfect had I not tried to stand on a branch and yelled like Tarzan. It was in the middle of that jubilant yell that the branch snapped and I fell onto the hard ground, some six feet below.
‘Yes!’ I said holding my bleeding knee. ‘Can’t you see I am bleeding?’
‘Yes that you are indeed.’ He peered closely at my wound. ‘Does it hurt much?’
‘No! It does not.’ I retorted angrily. ‘It feels like a fairy has kissed me.’
‘Hahaha!’ Jojo threw back his hairy head and laughed.
‘Don’t laugh please.’
‘Okay! I won’t.’ He grew serious. ‘But why don’t you tell me how it all happened?’
‘I was trying to be Tarzan………………’ I started off and told him all – my burning desire to climb the tree; the intoxicating thrill when I was standing on the branch and yelling; and my hurtful fall.
‘Hmm! Did you like being Tarzan?’ He asked with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
‘Oh yes!’ I nodded in excitement. ‘I loved it.’
Then we both looked at each other and laughed our heads off at the hilarity of the circumstances.
‘Does it hurt now?’ He asked after a while.
‘Huh?’ I checked the wound. It had stopped bleeding. ‘Not as much, I guess.’
‘Why has the pain faded away?’ Jojo asked.
’I do not know.’ I was bewildered. ‘You tell me.’
‘It doesn’t hurt anymore because you stopped focusing on the pain.’ He held my hand and looked deep into my eyes. ‘Once you ignore the pain and once you refuse to become the playground of pain, it moves away.’
‘I think there is no longer any need to keep you locked up.’ Doctor Morrison smiled at me. ‘We have a wonderful room available and will be shifting you there today.’
‘And will we be………?’ I hesitatingly asked. ‘Will we able to walk in the garden?’
‘Oh of course yes Tom. You will be able to walk as much and for as long as you want to.’ The doctor stressed on the word ‘you’.
The new room was perfect. There was even a large window providing a lovey view of the lush green hospital grounds outside. It was heavily barred of course but it didn’t matter. We both loved it.
Life was settling into a routine once again. But this time the door wasn’t locked from the outside and there was no cold silence. The nurses’ duty station was just down the hall and I could often hear music.
Ah sweet music! It reminded me of times gone by and all that was once beautiful. It reminded me of people that I once loved and those whom I had lost.
Then one day I met Barbara. She was a very old sweet woman who lived in the room next to mine and kept on smiling all the time. But when her demons came visiting, she transformed into a wretch, afraid of even her own image in the mirror.
Her frail body writhed in agony while the nursing staff held her down forcefully and injected some sedative. The visit of the demons took its toll and she stayed on bed for the next few days.
‘What is wrong with her?’ I once asked Timi, the kindest and most communicative of all the nurses.
‘Schizophrenia!’ She whispered back. ‘Just like yours but far more intense.’
Then one rainy night I was jolted out of my medicine-induced sleep.
‘Wake up Tom! Wake up for God’s sake!’ Jojo held my shoulders and shook me.
‘What….?’ I sat up bewildered and disoriented. ‘What is wrong?’
‘There is something wrong with Barbara.’ He motioned towards the next room. I tried to focus and could hear sobs. ‘Let’s go help her.’
I dragged my body out of the comfort of my bed and started looking for my slippers.
We found Barbara sitting on her bed – sobbing, while her body shook like an autumn leaf.
‘What is wrong?’ I patted her shoulder kindly. ‘Should I call the nurse?’
She didn’t answer for a while and kept looking at me. Then she looked around the room like she was expecting someone to appear out of thin air. She looked afraid – so very afraid. Then she stood up and went to the mirror.
‘It is inside me.’ She said in a small voice. And then she screamed. ‘It is inside me and eating me up.’
‘Who is inside you?’ I went up to her and stood behind her, holding her frail shoulders for comfort.
‘The demon………the demons……all of them……the legion is inside me and burning me up.’ She sobbed hysterically.
‘It’s alright.’ I turned her around and hugged her tight. ‘I am here for you.’
‘It is so very painful Tom.’ She whimpered into the comfort of my shoulder. ‘It hurts so bad.’
‘Don’t focus on the pain Barbara.’ I rocked her gently.
‘I can’t Tom…..I can’t.’ I felt her frustrated tears soaking up my cotton shirt.
‘Tell me…..’ I was desperately thinking of saying something distracting. ‘Tell me…why do the demons visit you? Why do they hurt you?’
‘Because I have sinned.’ Her body grew tense for a moment. ‘Oh I have so grievously sinned.’
‘We are all sinners Barbara.’ I gently patted her bony back. ‘We are all terrible and pathetic sinners. But no one here is judging you for your sins and no one has the right to.’
‘The demons judge me.’ She whispered back. ‘They judge me and mock me and torment me.’
‘Do not listen to them. The demons are not………’ I so wanted to tell her that her demons were not real. But then I looked at Jojo. He was calmly sitting on the bed and looking at me with understanding and affection.
‘The demons are not what?’ Barbara detached herself from my embrace and looked at me with anger flashing in her cloudy blue eyes.
‘The demons are not worth listening to Barbara. Ignore them and they will go away.’
She didn’t answer me for a while and kept on searching for something in my eyes.
‘You are a good man Tom. You are a very kind man.’ She had probably found what she was looking for. ‘Let me confess my sin to you and then maybe the demons will leave.’
I just nodded my head and softly pulled her back in my arms.
‘It was a winter evening in 1923.’ Barbara started whispering and I concentrated upon listening to each word that was being said.
‘I was a young girl and a single mother. And my daughter was so beautiful. She was just like a porcelain doll with flawless complexion, all golden curls and deep blue eyes. But I could never appreciate her beauty or the charm of her loving smile, which appeared on her face each time she looked at me. You know why? Do you know why I couldn’t appreciate all that?’ Her voice grew into a harsh whisper.
‘No! I do not know but you can tell me why.’ I caressed her silver hair. ‘You can tell me all.’
‘I could not see her beauty because I was addicted to morphine. I don’t remember how the habit started. Probably some client injected me first and I didn’t object. Once the warmth flowed through my veins and oblivion came thereafter, I was hooked forever. I didn’t like doing it Tom…..I swear I didn’t like it. But I found relief in it. It took me away from all the pain and all the suffering. The world is a tough place Tom, and I so wanted to escape it in any way that I could.’
‘Yes the world is a tough place and life is difficult.’ I said kindly, our bodies rocking gently to the sad music of regret. ‘Please go on.’
‘That night…..’ Barbara’s voice welled up with tears again. ‘That night she was crying. My daughter was crying because she was hungry. There was no milk in my breasts. You know Tom…men don’t like their hookers with dripping breasts. My milk had all dried up and it had been snowing for the last three days. There were no clients to be found. I even tried begging but failed. There was hardly anyone in the streets. But my daughter didn’t know that. She kept on crying and finally I had to leave her alone and go out to search for food. I didn’t want to go Tom. I didn’t want to leave her alone. But I had to.’
‘I understand.’ I could feel my voice choking up too. ‘I understand.’
‘I went out and I found a client almost immediately. It was a miracle. I finally had something in my pocket to buy the milk for my daughter. I started walking towards my apartment building and then I came across my morphine dealer. He was a cruel man – the devil himself in flesh and blood. He sensed I had some dough on me. And then he made me an offer. I have to go home, I said. My hungry daughter is waiting for milk, I begged him. But he kept smiling. Yes go on, he said. But before you go, get some warmth in your blood. Come on….he lured me and I couldn’t ……..I simply couldn’t resist.’ Her voice broke up and she started crying again.
‘It’s okay………’ I held her close, feeling each beat of her guilty heart. ‘Go on, tell me all.’
Hearing these words, Jojo gave me an approving glance.
‘It was morning when I woke up. I was in my dealer’s bed – naked. After a few moments of recollection I suddenly thought of her. I tried to find my clothes but couldn’t. I hurriedly wrapped my naked body in a blanket and ran towards home. I was crying and slipping in the freezing sludge. My knees were badly scratched and were bleeding but I kept on running. I kept on running and I kept on slipping. I thought I could hear her crying. But when I reached home she was………….’ She completely broke down and kneeled on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
‘She was already dead……wasn’t she?’ I asked coldly.
‘Yes!’ She was sobbing, each sob shaking her entire body as if trying to break it into small pieces.
I felt a sudden wave of coldness overcoming my entire being. I felt revulsion and hatred towards that miserable woman. But then I looked at Jojo. He was looking at me and smiling a kind but sad smile.
‘What?’ I asked him confusedly.
‘Remember what all you have learnt so far.’ He raised his hand. ‘Try to feel your own pains. Recall your own sins and your own guilts. Remember every experience that you have had and only then decide if you want to be another demon and judge this poor woman or you want to be a fellow human being and understand her.’
I didn’t answer him. Instead I turned around and looked at my image in the mirror. I saw an old man whose heart was filled with regrets. I looked at my face closely. There were shadows of guilt everywhere. I could see faces reflected in those shadows – faces of all those whom I had hurt and betrayed. There were so many of them and all were contorted in agony. I looked at those contorted faces and saw my own shame being reflected back.
‘What do I do?’ I looked back at Jojo. ‘What is to be understood here?’
‘There is only a single lesson which needs to be understood.’ He said. ‘There has always been a single lesson and there will always be a single lesson. And this lesson encompasses the purpose of our lives.’
‘And what is that lesson?’ I asked, while knowing the answer.
‘Kindness….Tom!’ He got up and smiled at me. ‘The only lesson this universe and our lives teach us is kindness. Do not judge but understand and be kind.’
‘And don’t forget that the old turtle was there in your life and I am here because you wanted someone to understand you and treat you with kindness. You never wanted to be harshly judged. Now please show her the same courtesy.’
‘Is this the final lesson?’ I asked him.
‘Yes!’ He nodded. ‘I do think this is the final lesson.’
I smiled back at Jojo and then looked at Barbara. She was still kneeling on the floor, her body shaking with sobs.
‘Come on child!’ I went to her and gently pulled her up. ‘You have confessed all. Let the demons go. Their job is done.’
‘But I am so very tired Tom.’ She hugged me tightly. ‘The demons are already leaving but I also want to go now.’
‘I understand.’ I whispered in her ear and felt her body relaxing.
In the morning the staff found Tom and Barbara, both lying in their own beds and dead. Both had been smothered with pillows placed tightly over their heads. Evidence indicated that Tom killed Barbara and then someone killed Tom. Tom’s killer could never be found.