An edited version of this article was printed in Us Magazine, The News, on 14th March 2014 – with the title ‘Tough times, tough measures’.
Disclaimer: This article does not promote any ideas, does not intend to offend any sensibilities and does not carry any moral innuendos. This is merely, and strictly a case of taking liberties with European tragedies and completely fictionalised accounts of how they happened – as seen by the imaginary characters sketched here.
“They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. It was a time when the unthinkable became thinkable and the impossible really happened.” – Arundhati Roy.
Genoa, Italy. 1347.
“This is the end of the world.” – Barbara W. Tuchman.
Cinzia Bagnara shifted frailly in her mangy bed, the sheets dappled with stains of blood she’d coughed up. She did this most carefully, so as to prevent the rub of friction against the black swellings on her inner thighs. Her underarms had grown hot as molten iron and just as red. She glanced out of the window – at carts carrying what should’ve once been humans. She was next, but the delirious shadows that now lulled her mind prevented her from acceding to the fear of the imminent. People, who still hadn’t fled or died, were killing cats and dogs outside, overlooking the eerie deaths of the rats in their frenzied state. Only this morning, she’d heard the muffled cries of the neighbour who had taken to the street and whipped himself, his naked body growing taut at his attempt at redemption. Some said it was the wrath of God that had culminated in this calamity. Others opined bad air was to be blamed for this. Only she knew the truth: only she was to be blamed.
Cinzia had always been a quiet child, always measuring the steps she took, lest she renounce the path created by her elders and displease them. So how was it that the timidity gave way to such courage that she eloped with the man of her choice? A choice that was more perilous than it was bold! She thought it was the power of love; her strength had shocked her. It had shocked her father even more. A priest at the local church, drenched thoroughly in Catholicism, this heterodoxy of his daughter had shattered him completely. She had married one who was not of the faith. She had shamed whatever he’d earned. He sought the couple deliberately, just to make sure its life should be as infernal as its after-life. He cursed them vehemently, his body shaking violently, his nerves wracking down his system with the abhorrence he felt. As Cinza stood listening to her father, she knew it was all over! Only three days later, Italian Armies returned to Genoa, carrying with them the great pestilence: her father’s curse. Her husband was the first to get infected with the Plague. He ended the very next day. She began her ending the very next day. Now, it would just be a matter of days, if not hours, that she would be lying dead on the same carts that adorned the view from her room.
In the coming years, about a third of Europe’s population would be exterminated by the Black Death. Too bad Cinza died way too early to behold the perdition her father’s curse had invoked!
Paris, France. 1337-1453.
“It scares me… What power do we have?” – Joan of Arc.
Perhaps an eternity evaporated into oblivion before the first word was said. He held the baby still. She leaned against the window. Weighed down by the intensity of the ignoble act they’d done one rainy night about a year ago in Paris, they dared not to look at each other. It was a sin in the eyes of man and God. She left – leaving the baby with him, never to return. And the chagrin did not end there: their country was attacked the same day by the English Armies. Edward III had gone to war with France, claiming its throne. And so started a series of battles that would continue for a hundred years between the countries. And so started a series of tragedies that would befall their generations for a hundred years. Was it for their transgression that the English had sworn to teach them a lesson? Maybe yes, maybe no.
The boy grew up to be called Andre – he had a bad eye and a weak upper limb. With the death of his father at fifteen and with a mother who had always been dead for him, he married at the age of twenty- five and had a baby boy called Maurice. Andre was killed as England attacked Poitiers. Maurice was not right in the head. Wading through his life with these incapacitated functions, he was killed too in a skirmish about thirty years later. Survived again by a son, Philippe, who had a deficit leg and couldn’t walk. Victor, Philippe’s son had hardly celebrated his second birthday when his father was brutally killed at Agincourt as Henry V gained control of France. Philippe married thrice, but could never procreate. He was sterile. Maybe, by ending this lineage was nature’s way to undo what had been done in Paris about a century ago. Just like blood had, the mortifications of the act, the remnants of history had trickled down into all of them, generation after generation, reducing them to ashes. They got punished for a crime that wasn’t theirs to commit. They got included in a secret that wasn’t theirs to know. There was no entry; there was no escape. Philippe lived long. And he died in 1453, on exactly the same day the hundred years’ war came to end. This was the end. To all of it.
About a hundred years ago, on a rainy night in a forlorn mansion in the east of Paris, a man and a woman met. As the rain smacked heavily against the roof and wolves roared in the distant marshes, indiscretion led to destruction. Caught in a whiff of unbridled sensations and erroneous want, they failed to realise they both had too much in common. Even the womb they had come from.
London, England. 1666.
“It made me weep to see it.” – Samuel Pepys.
She swayed in front of the mirror, reposed at the formidable reflection of her being. The mirror, a hefty, bronze structure; was the only thing she’d asked of her husband during the divorce. The only worthy conclusion of their marriage, according to her. She’d offered he keep their baby in return. He obliged, out of eagerness to get rid of her than sympathy. He’d given her the baby too – its gender was a liability. So here she was, always spending hours before the mirror. Observing herself, staring at her eyes with her eyes; their azure tint, the slight quivering of the left one, the graceful carpet of lashes around the lids. She would look at her lips before touching them, succulent and shiny as if she’d just painted them in crimson. Her hair, the golden tangles concealing the veins descending her neck, the layers bending intricately towards her bosom. She’d lift her eyebrows appealed by their bonny architecture, one at a time; and dwell upon which one added more to her countenance. She’d turn sideways to let the sight of her body sink in, still lax in places due to the recent child-birth, but voluptuous as it was. She admired these features of hers with a deep sagacity; she beheld her reflection with awe. And many a times, she wouldn’t be able to hear the cries of her baby that lay unkempt on the bed. The hum of the desire running through her vessels was way too loud for the baby’s yelps to overcome. She burned for attaining nothing but herself – the fire within her singeing her insides.
Above and beyond the internal fire, a greater conflagration had taken over London. The fire that had started in the bakery of Thomas Farriner was spreading in sparks, eating up the narrow alleys of the city, torching to a crisp the medieval, congested houses. The people of the city were helpless at the helm of this intense calamity. They tried to flee the city – eventually finding its gates closed and surrendering to the doom. She received these news with a surprising stolidity, desisting only temporarily from continuing with her occupations. She scoffed when she heard of the French and Dutch being tortured, for their alleged role in the outbreak. She cringed at the people bellowing for carts to take them elsewhere. She had known fire too well to be afraid of it. As so it was, when the Great Fire of London finally spread to Lombard Street, snaking all the way from Pudding Lane, she believed it was the universe giving in before her will. That this fire was only an extension of her own. The last thing she remembered was the image of the outer edges of her lips turning upwards. Then there was just heat, darkness and melted passion.
She was the lover. She was the beloved. She was the love. She was nothing more than a mass of burnt bones.
Lisbon, Portugal. 1755.
“To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.” – Voltaire.
Joao was fifteen, his age still unripe to have him comprehend the implications of what he felt. He had convinced himself that he would shun the reprobate ways. He had to retreat to his shell – there was no other explanation of what he suffered except for that it was an odious infliction. Nothing more, nothing less. He knew taking a confidant would only swell the perplexity – he knew well to keep it to himself. He had made peace with himself – until of course, he met that person.
That person knew it before being told – soothing Joao that no good would come out of his chiding himself for what it was that he felt. Joao abjured this prospect at first, but spurred by the concern and affection that that person had no qualms in expressing; eventually relented. And as they both walked towards the grim hut by the side of the sea that morning, guilt was still thudding faintly against his heart. But it paled in comparison to the sense of freedom Joao experienced. Or was it love? They entered the hut, entering the side room that over-looked the sea. Everything was blurry in the moments that followed – a cascade of unfocused sequences dwindling into the thin air. The person left – telling Joao to wait and that the return would be soon. Joao complied, and only a few minutes had passed when a peculiar tempest offended his ears. He peeped through the threshold – seeing the person return, but with a good thirty people by his side; all clamouring emphatically. As they neared, Joao finally got what they were saying: ‘The sin of Gomorrah! The sin of Gomorrah! Hand us the sinner!’! He had been made up by that person. Hot tears rolled down his cold cheeks. He ran to the room, throwing him out of the window and running for his life. Taking a refuge in a shed of a cottage that faced the opposite direction, he spat at himself; whimpering by now. He screamed, with utter shame. Or was it guilt? He raised his hands in prayers, asking for his God’s punishment than the mob’s. As he entreated, the Earth shook with such intensity that almost the entire city was razed to rubble. It was followed by the sea rising ferociously to fetch the land.
No one can say for sure whether it was the earthquake that killed him or the flood. Only that he was dead. Only that the sea took his body before throwing it off at another shore. Only that the sea forgot him forever after it had done that!