The Ballad of Joy

Since his wife left him 2 years ago, Jayadeep’s daily routine has been fixed by Dada’s entry into his house. I forced him to keep a person from my village as a helper, or his life would have certainly fallen in disarray. Once Dada has completed cooking his breakfast only then Jayadeep (affectionately named ‘Joy’ about a score years ago by me) started getting ready for his office. By the time he came back, Dada would have already prepared the table and Joy would finish the breakfast and leave for the Calcutta Stock Exchange.

He prefers taking the yellow cab instead of using his personal vehicle. His beloved 2005 model Mercedes is only used on the special occasions of weekend trips and Durga Puja pandal hopping, which he has been going for the past two years with my family. For the daily chores the Activa worked well enough. The incessant traffic and the proportionate increase in the number of bad drivers on the roads killed the pleasure of driving for both of us some time ago. Now we preferred to sit in the passenger seat observing the sprawling urban mess of insecurities and fear that our beloved city was metamorphosing into, quietly sipping our tea and reading our newspaper.

He usually got down well before the stock exchange building. The narrow footpaths were all lined with vendors selling all varieties and vagaries one could visualize. I had only been there once and the scene is still vivid in my mind. Near the Peepal tree was a locksmith crafting keys for the unknown, and two shops down was a lottery ticket seller who made money out of people spending their hard-earned cash on the slimmest chance of fulfilling all their fantasies. An old woman selling old coins from the days of yore was sitting next to tea vendor serving to brokers like Joy, who dreamed of Buffet and Wall Street. And in front of his building was a paper bound book stall selling cheap reprints of old poets as the old decaying building tried its best to exhibit novelty, but the pungent smell of decrepit still crept from its doors, although the lobby had maintained some of its glory from the past.

As a broker his job was to make money for his clients and earn through transaction fees, while making some on the side for himself. He was no rainmaker, but made enough to maintain a lifestyle. Golfing, Theater, Exhibitions, all your usual stuff. At least, the usual stuff he used to do before his wife left him along with their daughter. Now he has become more reserved, focusing more on his job. The results were telling and this was his best year in a long, long time.

A few weeks ago, I asked him about it, “So you are saying that you have learned to gauge the intention of a person. And your pedagogy was through those dreams that you are having since the divorce?”

“No bhai, before the divorce. And no, not in that sense. I mean that I can understand the general mood of the public, I know what news will make people go bull or go bear.”

“What is a bull and be…never mind, it is of my understanding that it translates in simple vernacular to you making a profit or a loss. But what piques my interest are your dreams.”

“You see, in dreams people are doing anything. I see so many scenarios in those dreams that no new news surprises me.”

“Uh, uh. I believe it’s the other way around. You are using your dreams as an inspiration to sell more dreams to naive people who eat up on every word of yours like gospel, like the sheep they are. Earlier you were more focused on saving a marriage that was dead and hence you were not as focused.”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged to avoid talking about his marriage. Joy always avoided talks about his marriage or his ex-wife. Taking the daughter was an unnecessary harsh thing to do on her part and Joy rarely ever spoke about her since then. Although he never admits his loneliness, but I still do invite him sometimes for dinner with my family.

From morning to evening, Joy sits in the front of a terminal and conducts his business with utmost efficiency. He had a stellar reputation in the market, although he was never considered the best. But for a person who had chosen his particular profession as a last resort, he has done pretty well in life. And recently, it seems that his years of hard work have finally given him the Midas touch.

Although you would assume that Joy should at least be happy with his life if not satisfied, he never was. His marriage somehow dragged on for so long because of the daughter and nothing else. As soon as her future was secure, they left him.
Joy had never been a happy man, and he made his displeasure known to his family. All his resentment towards the everything in the world except money and painting was burdened on the shoulders of those two. Everyone else, including myself, got to see only the cosmopolitan-socialite-sophisticated-cultured Jayadeep Bhattacharjee.
I met Joy’s wife only once after their divorce, when she told me about all the emotional abuse he had been wrecking on their family for so long. But as far as I know him, it was not done for vengeance or even committed knowingly.

That day, we were meeting in the arts gallery of our Alma Mater. The current batch put up a great show in the annual festival. Me and Joy were both part of the team that organised the first one in this college. That was when we found out about our common love for painting, and thus our friendship began.

“Is it any good?”, he interrupted my train of thought.

“Yes. They have done a splendid job. Makes me remember the time we worked together. By the way, didn’t you tell me to be here by 7.”

“The traffic of this city bhai. These ride sharing technologies think they have understood it, trying to predict your arrival time. What they don’t take into account is the human emotional factor. People act strange when they are in traffic.”

“Yes, I believe you must know a lot about it. Masquerading as a data scientist who uses algorithms to understand peoples’ mind, all you do is rely on luck.”

“Now stop with your criticism of everything capitalistic. Let me observe the painting for a minute.” He stood there for some time in his usual pose of a critic.

“A 21-year-old painted this?”, he spoke after a few seconds.

“18. First year.”

It was charcoal on canvas depicting a juxtaposition of imagery, most of them about the rural parts of West Bengal. It reminded me a lot of my childhood, and I can assume it was the same for Joy. He hailed from a remote village quite far from Calcutta. His father was a a personal accountant for a local rich guy. He wanted his only son to be a Chartered Accountant. He send Joy to study commerce at the prestigious Calcutta University for this very purpose. But at the age of 5, Joy had received a black charcoal slate and two white chalks on his first day of school. He secretly claimed to me once that it was then when he fell in love with painting.
But he had the skills to show for it too. Joy’s works were the main attraction the first time he displayed his works in the festival. For the next two years, his personal exhibition set the tone for the overarching theme of our festival. Some of the professors in the Arts department used to lament the fact that such a prodigy is wasting his life in a commerce classroom, when he could be painting a masterpiece.

“It is quite good.” On the personal rating scale of Jayadeep, it meant high praise.

“Bastab Saha. Same age as yours when you painted your masterpiece. Let me look…. ah, Commerce. Looks like you have a protege in the making.”

“I was never a very gifted painter. It’s just that everyone else was so bad that my works caught on to the attention of people.”

“Stop pretending to be modest bhai. Both of us know that you could have gotten that scholarship at Bard, if only you would have applied for it.”

“A commerce student receiving a scholarship for a fine arts course, you couldn’t have thought about a more absurd scenario now, could you?”
When the results were declared, one of our batch mates from the arts department whom Joy used to teach got selected. Although he had kept a normal composure while congratulating him, I could sense that he was crestfallen.

“But why? Why didn’t you apply? There was no harm in doing that, nobody would know if you got rejected. So why not Bard?”

“Because I would not have gotten selected anyway, and I did not want to waste my time preparing an application while I was preparing for my CA paper. And why have you suddenly fixated all your attention on things that happened so far back in college? It doesn’t matter now.”

“But you never did give the CA paper, did you?” Joy’s face went deathly pale. “Your wife told me about it, after the divorce.”

I didn’t need to say anything else. I had always assumed that it was because of his father’s dream of a Chartered Accountant for a son that he never submitted the Bard application. I used to feel sorry for him for not being able to clear the exam.
But once the truth became clear to me, it was easy to connect the dots. Not giving the CA paper was Joy’s purposeful sabotage of his father’s dream, an act of revenge against the one thing that never allowed him to follow his passion.

Both of us remained silent for a while. I spoke first, “Tell me one thing Joy, what would be your advice to this young man, Bastab Saha, at this point of his life?”

“Who am I to advice anything?”

“Come on, say something. In any case, he isn’t here. So, it won’t matter.”

Joy kept staring at the name tag attached to the canvas. Just as I was giving up on the hope of eliciting a response from him, he spoke, “I would tell him to start focusing some of his attention on the CA papers. Don’t waste away the most fruitful years of your life pursuing pipe dreams that lead nowhere. All of this, pursuing a hobby and doing what you love is fine in the short term, but you need to have a pragmatic approach to life.”

“So, you’ll basically tell him to not follow your footsteps.”

“Yes.”

“And what if he does what you say.”

“Well, then 20 years later he will be much richer than me, and ultimately much happier.”

“You think that all rich people happy Joy?”

“Of course they are.”

“I know at least one filthy rich person who is still rotting in a pit of despair.” My accusatory gaze was fixated on him.

“I was until she left me with my child.” He quickly avoided me.

“Stop lying Joy.” I felt a sudden rush of anger rising up in me. I cut him off before he could interrupt me, “They left you because nothing they ever did could ever make you happy. She tried her best Joy, she kept up with your unhappiness and your frustration and your unjustified bouts of anger for years. In the end, I guess it became too much for her to handle.”

“Stop taking her side, you are my friend.” He was suddenly shouting, and I could see people looking in our direction and hushing among themselves. “You have no right to talk to me like that.” I could see his color rising too, but I didn’t care. After all these years of lies, I had every right to be angry.

“Yes, I have. As your best friend for the past 20 something years, I have earned that much. Keep lying to me Joy. I don’t care. But stop lying to yourself. You have always been unhappy. Accept this fact. Stop venting the frustration and anger and pain of your past on the present, and the people in it who are trying their best to love you.”

My father once said that there are two types of artists. First are those who spend their whole life trying to showcase their talent to this world. These are the guys you read about, the ones who spend their youth walking the streets and eating half meals, crashing on couches of friends and drinking cheap liquor. And then one fine day, the world suddenly realizes their true worth and they are showered with all the applause and adulation that they should have rightfully received years ago. Sometimes this realization is dawned during their lifetimes, sometimes after.

And then there are the ones like Joy. Those who never take the leap of faith, too afraid of the struggle and the pain. Those who choose the safety of mediocrity over the risk of greatness.

After some tense moments, it was Joy who broke the uneasy silence, “I could have been an artist. I could have been to Bard, or Rutgers too. I could have been a lot of things bhai, but I choose to be this. A working-class man destined to be nothing more than someone who spend his life chasing adequacy. But it’s too late to think about all that now. It’s too late to change what has already happened. It’s like you always say, forget the past or something.”

“Is it though?”

For anyone who saw us that day, we were two critics quietly appreciating a beautiful piece of painting hanging against a pure white background in a college arts exhibition. But I don’t remember a single detail about the painting. All I remember is the silence, followed by Joy’s footsteps as he left the gallery. I can still hear their echoes in my dreams.

“See you when I see you Biswa.”


And just like that, he was gone.
My father’s favorite saying was – “You can’t regret the life you never had.” But for twenty years Joy regretted not following up on his dreams. He regretted a life he could have had, but never did.
And then one day he decided to do away with the regret and move on. I never saw Joy again after that day. He has never contacted me, and neither have I. I believe that he wants nothing of the past that he has decided to leave behind forever and I am always going to be an integral part of it, so it is probably best for me to get away from him. I only hope that he is finally living up to the name that I gave him all those years ago.
Joy.

One thought on “The Ballad of Joy

  1. I love this short story; thank you so much for sharing it.
    This inner conflict struck a chord with me…in our world, it always seems like we have to choose between security and the death of the soul or inner happiness and a life of risk.
    I hope Joy chose to return to his painting; I really do.

    Like

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