2001, Archives, Indian Express, Journalism

Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men: Watching this fine film reminded me of this story I had written in 2001. A real man – Tulsi – using his real son – Thathagat – as material for his outlandish experiments

For those that have seen Serious Men, and for those that have not: This is from the Indian Express Sunday Magazine of August 19, 2001

There is, somewhere, subterfuge stalking this story. Perhaps it has confiscated centerstage from the protagonist, perhaps it has run away with the story itself. For if this is meant to be the story of Tathagat Avatar Tulsi — at 12, the youngest postgraduate of the human race — there isn’t a story to tell. Tathagat never had a story of his own; it was always the story of Tulsi Narayan Prasad, progenitor and sole proprietor of what he calls the Tathagat Patent and what the world has called by various names at various times — whizkid, genius, aberration, fraud. Take Tulsi off the stage and Tathagat vaporizes from the plot, like a character whose role has been expunged. There is no Tathagat if there isn’t Tulsi, just as there isn’t a creature minus creator, or a puppet without puppeteer. That Tathagat story could be nothing but the story of strings with Tathagat attached. Or, shall we say, Tulsi wouldn’t allow it to be anything but that.

I go to meet Tathagat and I meet Tulsi. He is guardian, gatekeeper, regent. You talk to Tathagat  and Tulsi talks to you. You ask Tathagat questions about his work and Tulsi begins to answer them. “You see, he won’t answer all your questions because secrecy is the key to the work he is doing, don’t try to decode the secret because Tathagat will not tell you.” Tulsi is proxy and protector too. “I know more about Tathagat himself because I made him Tathagat much before he himself realized he was Tathagat. He is my programme, my product. Ask me.”

And before you have begun to wonder at the strangeness of the father’s choice of words for son, the product has responded to programming — Tathagat has slunk away like an admonished spaniel and installed himself beyond the forbidden boundary of the bedroom. Genius does not need to offer proof of genius by act of personal presence, not in the photocopy age, not when the Maker of Genius himself is notary to those photocopies. He has kilos and kilos of them, catalogued in the chaos of mouldy newspapers — certificates, degrees, marksheets, testimonials, what not. He is happy to pull them out of his pygmy steel almirah, from among uncertain texts on tantra and astronomy and Kamasutra and scatter them like confetti of self-congratulation. Tathagat is only incidental to Tulsi; and, in any case, he is currently engaged — being spoon-fed rancid kheer by his mother. The essence is here, spread out around me, a paper trail of the making of Tathagat and the glazed enchantment in the eyes of his Maker. Imagine Rumpelstiltskin on the morning after the miller’s daughter’s night of labours. “Do you know it took me almost 20 years to make Tathagat? But I made him and the proof is before you. Can you deny all this? Can anyone?”

The documents are too many, or perhaps the table is too small; they are spilling all over the place and Tulsi is the in the ecstasy of excess. “High school at less than 10, a first class in B.Sc. at 11, a first class in M.Sc at 12, a graduate of the National Entrance Test (NET) before 14, all certified and attested, all in defiance of age, all against heavy odds, and yet they doubt Tathagat, they doubt my creation. Look at these degrees, I didn’t write them. And I didn’t write Tathagat’s exams. Why should I have to prove anything beyond this? Tathagat is a genius. You disprove me.”

Dropletter…dropletter…dropletter

Genius may yet be too big a burden for him to be carrying: genius isn’t easily quantifiable, but genius doesn’t lean on Papa as Tathagat does. There is a terrible ordinariness to his docility and obedience. If Papa got tired of peddling genius tomorrow and shut shop, Tathagat would probably be content behind the shutters. Even so, there must be something to the boy, some gift that isn’t everyday endowed. He took a year to finish a three-year course in B.SC at age 11 and before he was 12, he was in the Guinness Book of World Records as youngest postgraduate, with a first class Master’s degree in Physics. Even if this is just about mechanical mugging, it must take some doing.

By the time he is eligible to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Tathagat may well have got his doctorate in Particle Physics. His current work is on what his father calls Tulitron, according to him the smallest existing particle, smaller even than quark, the tiniest building block of physical matter known to man. Tulitron is a mere assumption as of now and has been dismissed as just that by many, but Tulsi has a furrowed-brow conviction about Tathagat being able to prove its existence. “We are working on the mathematical proof, we’ll get there, no matter what some people say. They even said Tathagat would not be able to pass high school at 10.”

Tathagat had smiled a benign, unknowing smile when asked how he had felt being labelled a hoax by the media and sundry scientists on his return recently from a conference of Nobel laureates in Germany. His Maker, though, takes to criticism like duck to cleaver. “They are all jealous, just jealous at the boy’s obvious genius. They just don’t want to believe he is one despite all his achievements, they just don’t want to believe I created one despite all the evidence for it.”

But how would they? The props to the edifice of Tathagat’s prodigious talent are so improbable, they invite skepticism and worse. The inquiry into Tathagat’s extraordinariness doesn’t lead you to the roots of a 14-year-old’s natural brilliance; it leads you, like all avenues in this tale, to Tulsi and his crazy, almost sinister, scheme. Tathagat’s story gets usurped by Tulsi again.

Tathagat is what you might call a dutiful experiment governed by Tulsi’s private science of unproven assumptions, something he calls the Optional Child Theory; boy, girl, idiot, moron, genius — apply Tulsi’s theory and pick what you want. It is a bizarre alchemy of eugenics, genetics, astral prophecy, physiology and lessons from the Kamasutra whose mechanics Tulsi himself appears a little confused over. “It is my own kind of eugenics, mixed with a lot of other deductions I have made,” he tells me, his tone ringing with resistance to any further details or explanation. “Basically, it is about invoking the power of the chromosome for genius through a specific method. I have done it, though I cannot prove it.”

There is a right time and a right diet for this process to spring fruit, a right mood and a right position, and, of course, a right donor and a right receptor. Get all of these exactly right and you can get Tathagat, genius.

Dropletter…dropletter…dropletter…

Tulsi gatecrashed into the Laboratory of Sciences with few credentials. At the time he began indulging his quest for manufacturing genius he was a tutor of history and archaeology at the Ram Charitra Singh College in Begusarai in Bihar — bored, perhaps even frustrated, with his anonymity. His grandfather, Jageshwar Prasad, had earned some local repute as a writer of Urdu couplets; he believed he had earned his nom de plume: Khalish. His father was a full-time landlord, secure in his small plenitude. Tulsi had landed in a nowhere world, neither man of letters, nor of land. “I had a burning desire to do something. I used to read all sorts of texts — the Kamasutra, genetics, the history of eugenics, that was my hobby. Then Hargobind Khurana won the Nobel Prize and that must have fired my ambition to do higher things.”

When Tulsi first spoke of his Optional Child Theory, friends laughed at him. But the debunking only spurred him. He decided, he tells me, to prove to the world that he could predetermine the sex of his child. So he chose a woman — “a receptor, of course of my caste and cultural background” — whose family had a genetic bias for female offspring. “I wanted to prove I could produce a boy with her, and I did. Not once, not twice but three times in a row.” A glow has come over Tulsi, a flush of extraordinary achievement and its telling.

Tulsi’s family is less his family, more material for his experiments with genes and genius. His wife — the receptor — had to be cleansed before she could be fit for child breeding. Tulsi turned her a vegetarian and for five years after their wedding she remained on a low-protein diet in preparation to bear male genius. And because she was not privy to the higher wisdom and lofty mission of her husband, she was allowed no choices in the bedroom or bed. Tulsi dictated the time, the mood and the manner of their mating.

“Women have brains the size of a pea,” Tulsi says knowledgeably, “in men the brains are bigger, more like mangoes. But women have higher perception and, with work, they can be turned into excellent receptors.” Tulsi’s first two sons — Pita Maheshwar Tulsi and Vishwa Purush Tulsi — were limited successes. They were male but they were not geniuses. The elder studies history and the younger is in high school. Tulsi makes it apparent they were mere milestones on the journey to Tathagat; until they appeared in our presence, Tulsi had not even bothered mentioning he had two other sons. He put some more, he says, into the making of Tathagat. “There might have been some gaps in my theory, and I had to plug them with more studies and research. In Tathagat’s case, I was sure. I wanted Nobel Prize material and when he began solving complex mathematical equations orally, I knew I had hit the jackpot. Those who still doubt me will see how I one day prove his genius and encash my labours. Bazaar mein prove karke bhajaa lenge, koi dikkat nahin hai, sirf thoda saa samay lagega.”

The man’s focus on Tathagat is admirably extreme. Everything else in Tulsi’s stifling one-and-a-quarter storied world is an adjunct to Tathagat. His wife flits about in the background, noiselessly performing her utilities to the project that her youngest son is — fanning Tathagat in the heat of a powerless afternoon, feeding him, straightening the sheets on his bed, each leg stood up on bricks. The two older brothers are officers on special duty to genius — keeping track of his testimonials, getting them photocopied, filing them separately, worrying what’s wrong with the power inverter because Tathagat needs the afternoon’s sleep so he can study at night.

It is a matchbox of a house the Tulsi family lives off in the warren of West Delhi’s reclaimed marsh settlements. The slice of land is so slim it makes even a floor and a quarter loom like a tower. The living room is a six-by-four passageway to the bedroom that accommodates little more than that bed. To one side is a kitchen that admits no more than space for the stove; Tathagat’s mother stands outside the kitchen door to work it. A naked staircase runs up to the mezzanine where the faulty inverter sputters. The living room itself is various things — living room, dining hall, library of newspaper clippings and testimonials, record-room of Tathagat’s achievements, kitchen landing, storehouse of odds and ends, future laureate’s study.

At the centre of this ramshackle theatre sits the diminutive dictator making prophecies of bringing the world to his feet where, currently, lies a single crumpled sock and a lizard dropping the shape and countenance of an exclamation mark.

You might wonder about a study table, books and notebooks, a lamp perhaps, even a computer. “Oh there is a computer at the back there somewhere, but Tathagat is a genius, he never had much use for such things.” He never even went to school, not for any length of time at any rate. “He was always too far ahead of his class and he was always being made into a showpiece because of his abilities, he fared much better studying at home, with me. School was a waste of time and so were his schoolmates. He is the kind who grasped metaphysics looking at the sky from his mother’s lap.”

Tathagat never had friends. He probably never made paper boats during the rains and never saw them sink at the bend in the gully. He was forever too busy playing genius. Perhaps, as he grows older and into his own someday, he will understand that crafting paper boats requires its own genius, and learning to watch them sink has its own metaphysics. Tulsi permitting.

Ends

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