Sentatoms by Tanuj Solanki

Chapter 1 – Framing

Green and golden paddy on distant hilly terraces. Someone takes a picture from inside the bus. A picture of the valley.


I think the picturesque has only a stale, postcard beauty.


I think an artist is not interested in the entire valley anymore. An artist is interested in bits of the valley, bits that are indecipherable and could be from anywhere.


So, I imagine zooming into that system of paddy terraces. Zooming in, not going close, so that the details are fudged. Zooming in enough and then framing for three to four levels of paddy. Three to four terraces, that is. And then click.




Blurry goldenrod. A work of art.



Chapter 2 – Dust and Spit
The mountain path is uneven, dusty. The bus struggles through it, sometimes tilting so much as to make me tense in the opposite direction to avoid overturning. The passengers cough from the dust whirled up by the grinding tyres. The dust is fine and powdery, like in the plains, which surprises me but also makes me nostalgic. I'm nostalgic of nausea, of childhood motion sickness. Rickety buses, smelly co-passengers, beedis, sweat, leaking gas cylinders, goats, aphrodisiac sellers, diesel, dust. The kind of dust that sticks to the throat.


The bus stops for a break. The passengers get down and clear their nasal passages and spit. Aakhthoo. Like in Hindi literature. Always the Aakh- before the -thoo.


I see two European girls titter at this carnival of spitting. I ignore them and spit. Without the Aakh. My spit falls on the dusty road and becomes beady.



Chapter 3 – Peaks
Members of the seven-eight thousand club appear suspended in the sky. She grows excited, points at them. Then they hide behind some lesser mountains. There is an obscure song playing for the nth time in the bus. A woman two seats ahead is about to puke. A sleepy man bangs his head on the seat in front of him. Someone farts hideously. Then someone else farts.


After some zigzagging the snowy peaks reappear. ‘The nearer you go, the taller they become. They become impossible, no?’ she says. I want to answer trigonometry, but I don't.



Chapter 4 – The town where the walking begins
The town where the walking begins is like a town from Western movies, a one road town. The town is like a Mexican town. The town is like a Peruvian town. I don't know. The town has many places to eat and drink and none of these places have more than four tables and all of these places serve momos. The town has many sparkling children. The town has many snotty stars. Looking up from the middle of the road, you can see the Milky Way cloud the black sky. Not many towns look up like that. The town is ugly. The town is so foreign, so beat-down, so melancholy, it terrorises you to imagine the lives of the townspeople. The town does not need bandits, one man with a knife will do. The town is a one night town. The town has street dogs. The town doesn't have streetlights. Apart from the crickets and the dogs and the loud river running parallel to it, the town is quiet. The town sleeps early. Now and then the dogs cry.



Chapter 5 – First walk
Trudging on a trail littered with footsteps and mule shit. The river gushes a hundred or so feet below on the right, the direction of its flow opposing our advance.


In the beginning there were villages and fields. Paddy, sugarcane, soybean. Colonies of radish. A soybean pod is like a pea pod, in case you didn't know.


At times a system of golden paddy terraces ends at one side of the trail, and then continues on the other side. Up close with the paddy, touching distance, I wonder: how does experience become literature?


Yesterday I thought I could zoom in on three to four levels and frame so as to make a work of – what? – abstract art? Today, inside the valley, having it unfold before me with the pace of one step following the other, next to the erect paddy, that thought seems old.



Chapter 6 – The season
Flowerless magnolia. Flowerless rhododendron. This is not the season for flowers.



Chapter 7 – A dream
I am or my gaze is at the site of a bomb explosion. I see a hanging man. He is blown. All burnt burning flesh and scraps of cloth. Then I see a man standing to my right. He is the hanging man come to life. This man standing next to me is almost naked, save the smoking rags holding his body. The shirt used to have checks, I can make that out. Then to my left there appears an asphalt road on which there is a man on all fours. This man is different, a new character. The lower half of his body, facing me, is naked and scalding red, so red that it makes me shiver in my dream. Like confetti ribbons, bits of his shirt hang on the upper half of his body, but this time I cannot make out what pattern it used to have. I presume he is dead, somehow transfixed in that position by the explosion. But then he starts moving! His leg moves, then his arm. I'm stunned. He is moving in super slow motion. Each movement of his tightens my throat. I'm confused. Where is he trying to go? I want to know that by looking in the direction of his movement, but the frame of my dream refuses to shift. He moves again. I'm terrified now. Not by his sight, but by his movement. Why is he moving? Where does he want to go? I want to know. I want to know.


I wake up. It is close to three in the morning, I reckon. I realise I need to take a piss. Badly. It is dark in the room we are holed up in. I tiptoe, go outside. The sound of the river shakes me a bit. Sound-wise, a river is steady and infinite, a sea periodic. There is grey light all around. Moonlight and starlight. I'm still dazed by my dream. I smash the big toe of my left foot on a stone and it hurts stupendously. I take my piss. When I enter the room I'm thinking of my toe and my dream. I'll have to disinfect the toe, but I'm too lazy to locate the med box in the room's darkness. I try to understand my dream by wrapping it in words and making a sentence out of it. It was hot destruction, dreamed from a cold, dark, peaceful environment. Once I've made this sentence, I start using it to deliberate what the dream reveals of my psyche. My toe throbs. Is psychoanalysis this – pounding theories on sentences? Is it nothing but reading? I'm worried about my toe. Maybe it will give me gangrene in days to come. I try to remember the dream again, to be able to write about it. I close my eyes and reconstruct it. The river goes on like a fire. Then I sleep.



Chapter 8 – Walking on
The toe healed in good time. She'd dressed it well. Luckily the toe nail was unharmed. We walked alongside the river. On and on. Sometimes to this side, sometimes to that, crisscrossing on bridges, but always against the flow of water, like scientists intent on discovering the root of a thing.



Chapter 9 – The root of this
This and the idea of this came in the bus ride in which I began and finished Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño.


Bolaño's book is poetic and incoherent, though I'm sure this here will fail both adjectives. There was a line in the book that instantly and profoundly moved me. I'll try to paraphrase it here (I can't remember it exactly and I'm too lazy to look).


Reality is nothing more to me than a swarm of stray sentences.

To Bolaño, a sentence is an atom of experienced reality.

Sentatoms? A swarm of sentatoms, then?


I can't say that is true for me. But it is something I want to be true for me.



Chapter 10 – Some sentences
(1) Mules panniered and packsaddled pelt the stony path with pensive eyes, but be careful and lean on the mountain when giving way, for these mules here have enough innocence to unknowingly nudge you into a hundred-metre gorge down which you will rumble and tumble till your unhinged insensate body meets the marching river and the number of fractures in your skull alone exceed the number of god-given bones you had in your unbroken version.


(2) It is very difficult to be an aspiring writer because writing alone does not guarantee that you are on the correct path, while the doing of anything and everything else that provides an experience which may in fact be written is a deviation which feels, in a way, like the devastation of wasted time.


(3) The representation of my self by its story is incorrect.


(4) I’m writing this chapter – the sentences that make this chapter – in a dark cold room with slits between the wooden slats that make the walls and I’m writing with the help of a light strapped to my forehead and I’m trying to construct another sentence and I realise this dishonest construction is all I have, for when I sit down like this to write about the day past, the day past in which I’ve done nothing but walk through mountains, all those sentences that had come to me in the day, when I was experiencing reality through them, have dissolved, and the only sentences that come to me now of their own accord, unconstructed sentences, are about experiencing the reality of making sentences.


(5) I cannot write, I will write.



Chapter 11 – The swarming sentatoms of the mountains
Barren bistre bluffs. Military green hills. Mountains girting a cloud forest. Mountains leaking filamentous water falls. Mountains separated by a river. Mountains separated by a river and joined by a pendulous bridge. Distant mountains the shape of a God. Mountains the name of a God. Ecru cliffs running beside the river, with black tops as if a huge box of paint was spilled carelessly over them. Mountains populated with straight green pines refusing to grow above a certain height. Mountains the colour of fall. Lichen mottled mountains. Dark chocolate mountains. Pewter mountains suggesting the excess of some mineral. Black mountains. Black mountains scratched by a celestial claw revealing their white frozen scab. Snow-draped mountains that would make excellent ski stations if only you could reach them. Mountains like a many-edged object wrapped tautly in a terrific white sheet. White mountains with pencil shaded parts. Unnamed mountains. Incandescent mountains.  Mountains nudged by cirri. Cone heads, buttes and mesas. Pyramids. Mountains with landslides. Mountains with eskers of gravel tracing avalanches ancient and recent. Nacreous glaciered mountains neutered of life. Mountains reflected in still lakes. Mountains that bequeath stillness and resolution, and educate of the concept of littleness .Youngest mountains in the world. Mountains the witness of a million suns.



Chapter 12 – Give me pen, give me balloon
Sun-drenched villages of a dozen or so hovels, some of which are shingled with slabs of a black stone I would like to name exactly.


The men are away working on fields or elsewhere. The women are inside the houses, cooking or weaving or idling. The narrow streets of the entire village are left for children to concoct games from. As we pass, some children form a group and gape at us. They all wail Namaste in a failed chorus. The youngest of them is no more than eighteen months and he fails a bit in performing his Namaste, one palm going higher than the other. The children follow their raucous salutations with that which we have grown tired of hearing: ‘Give me pen, give me balloon. Give me pen, give me balloon…’


‘Give me balloon,’ puzzles me out and out.


Who was the first kid to have made this request? Surely that kid did not know what a balloon was. Or even if he did, it could not have possibly occurred to him to ask the tourists for one. Now, years or maybe generations after that mysterious first kid, kids all across these mountains repeat this desire for a balloon, as if in a trance. Why?



Chapter 13 – Alpine vegetation
I’d like to know more about alpine vegetation to make this rich and lively. If I knew more about alpine vegetation, I’d be able to talk about the different kind of spruce, the different kind of brush, et cetera. But then, you’d be able to understand the words I use and their meanings only if you already knew about alpine vegetation, in which case you’d just be reading what you already knew. In the other case, you’d not understand a word of what I was talking about and you’d have to go to the dictionary too many times, an act that takes away the pleasure of reading. If I knew about alpine vegetation, it would have been difficult for me not to talk about it in this book, but I’m not sure if it would have been a good idea.



Chapter 14 – Strings and a pole
We eat a local dish for lunch in the dung-strewn front yard of a decrepit village house and from where we are, we can see an eight thousand high mountain standing calm and patient and majestic, steaming a little cloud in the strong sun. Earlier, as we walked, this monster would sometimes hide behind a nearer mountain with only the tiniest triangle of its summit showing like a bleached white monastery where one can imagine a god’s residence. In this village there is also a real monastery surrounded by kerfs of black stone I would like to name; between the ragged triangles of those stones the monastery compound looked like the epicentre of an earthquake. In the front yard of the house we are in, two belled and furred calves of a milk giving animal I would like to name exactly (likely a cross between a cow and a yak) chew on dried stalk amidst their own knotty, fragrant dung. As I look up to the white mountain, I notice that my view is actually being obstructed by four parallel telephone lines and two strings with a pattern of Tibetan flags – green orange white yellow blue. Aware of the obstructions now, I see only them and not the mountain. I wish for the fluttering flags to stay and for the solid telephone lines to disappear. But then I discover that one end of both the flag-bearing strings is tied to the pole that supports the telephone lines. I notice in this a symbol for something but I can’t make out what. They’ve learnt to live with each other, I tell myself, and I should learn to look at the mountain through them both. When I look down I see the two calves gaping at me, and I notice how they are still and yet breathe so fast. Sometimes they twitch a nostril to shake off a fly. The bells on their necks are ‘Made in China.’



Chapter 15 – She said
‘It is good to walk in the sun, no?’


‘It is good to walk in the shade, no?’


‘It’s beautiful, the forest. Euh?’


‘We walk more in the morning. I think we also walk faster in the morning. It is good to walk in the morning, no?’


‘The first fifteen minutes in the morning are tough.’


‘You should not let your cardio come down. You should slow down and find your pace. But you should not stop. When you stop, your cardio comes down. It is difficult to start again when your cardio is down.’


‘I think we should take it easy today.’


‘I have to wash. My feet are dirtier than yours. Because my shoes are more open than yours.’


‘The vegetation is very interesting.’


‘You walk faster when you walk in the front.’


‘You are making a lot of dust. I’ve to take all the dust.’


‘Having a light in the room makes all the difference, no?’


‘Fuck, there are mice in the room!’


‘The mouse bit my sock. Shit!’


‘And yours too. Fuck!’


‘The view is beautiful, no?’


‘The people are so mean. They’re so money minded. They think they have the right to loot tourists.’


‘What does that mountain look like to you? To me it looks like an owl, with its two peaks like ears.’


‘Crows in Bombay do caw caw. The crows here do aw aw, no?’



Chapter 16 – Writing of dreams
(1) For writers, writing is dreaming. For dreamers, dreaming is writing.


(2) Anyone who has taken upon himself the task of writing down his dreams will soon discover, apart from the trademark absurdity of the events, that funny thing which may be called the deviousness of the memory of dreams and the ever unreliable process of the conversion of this memory into words.


(3) The slow pace of writing – slower than pure telling – forces upon the act of remembering a dream an excess – an over-remembering – that facilitates a construction, a filling-in of the holes in that slowly evoked memory.


(4) This fictionalisation of the forgotten holes while writing a dream requires a hell of practice to avoid, but is possible; and it is possible even to control this fictionalisation, to let it a free in some places and to chain it in others; and this possibility of control is what makes me believe that writing down dreams is an excellent training for writing fiction.


(5) The text of a dream is only a representation of the dream and not a presentation of it, and its only ethic is in being adequately farcical.



Chapter 17 – Reading
I began reading Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain. As I learnt, the content of the novel belied the title which had enticed me into appearing to be in resonance with my surroundings.


Synopsis: Ogata Shingo, sixty-three, head of a Japanese family, father of a war-surviving son and an about-to-be-divorced daughter, is experiencing the first effects of old age in the attrition of his general memory. Despite this, his perception of subtle natural phenomenon, his analysis of his fertile dreams, and his attraction (often sexual) for his daughter-in-law, Kikuko, continue to swell in grace and poetry.

(Typical Kawabata stuff, this)


The novel begins with Shingo hearing a strange rumble in a distant mountain and associating the sound with that of approaching death. This portentous beginning made me pause and listen to the high mountains in front of me, the nearest ones rising a kilometre above my eye. The tops of the snowy mountains turned orange and then pink and then blue in the setting sun, but all there was to hear was silence.



Chapter 18 – Reading on
I read on. I read on as Shingo came to know of his son’s mistress and as the bitch in his neighbourhood delivered puppies and as his son-in-law attempted suicide and as he almost kissed a hermaphrodite mask and as Kikuko had an abortion without telling anyone in the family and as Shingo and Kikuko talked of sunflowers and cherry trees and kimonos and gingko and gyonsuke and as Shingo saw his own failure in the impending failure of his children’s marriages and yet cultivated a secret love for Kikuko and I read on and it was all beautiful and flawed and subtle to the point of being hidden and I looked at the sky become lavender and swallow the remaining whiteness in the west, just above the highest mountain, and I read on and I thought of my life sprawled before me like a thick textbook of a subject I neither understood nor wanted and I wondered if Murakami was just a bleary-eyed late-adolescent writing book for adolescents and I worried over what to do with my writing and my writing seemed to me like a hard heavy brick made out of the glumly glued pages of many an interesting books and I felt like pulling out my hair and I felt that total lack of faith in all the words I had written and all the words I was to write and I grew convinced that I was not a writer but only a pretender and my heart sank in the way hearts have always sunk in life and in literature and I read on and Shingo went to his son’s mistress and requested her to abort his grandson and she hugged me from behind and said it was too cold and we looked up to Orion and we called it The Roman Soldier for the hundredth time and we said I love you to each other for the millionth time and I thought I loved her so much, as much as the mountain, but my heart was grey now and I was in her arms and I could not read on.



Tanuj Solanki's work has been published in Annalemma, elimae, Nether, Open Road Review, red lightbulbs, and others. He is currently working on his first novel.