Thursday, December 16, 2010

Short Story - The Story That Can't Be Told

I walk into the railway station still cursing the traffic under my breath. The clock on the wall with a white dial and square black numbers and hands shows a time well after midnight. The platforms appear deserted except for the odd porter hurrying along, smelling of dried sweat on decayed leather. I hear the sound of running water on utensil, sometimes flat and sometimes gradually dampening, punctuated by a harsh clamour of the most recently washed joining the rest of the pile. It mixes with the occasional lonely hoot of a locomotive on its way to the shed. I ask a passing porter and he informs me that the last train of the night has already passed.

I find an empty bench in an unlit corner. A dog lies on its side next to it; it’s left ear flaps lazily when I place my suitcase on the bench. I stretch my legs out in front and tug my tee a few times near the belly so it lies loosely and creased, camouflaging the paunch. The weather is balmy. A faint breeze rises and falls. In the distance, infinite lines of semaphore signals trace the path of railway tracks.

There is no open tea stall in sight. I close my eyes and try to sleep. Perhaps, I do. I am not sure. When I open my eyes again, everything is the same. I decide to stroll on the platform in the hope of finding an errant hawker still peddling stale readymade tea from a steel cylinder. Even if I do not, I say to myself, it will let time pass more unobtrusively.

To my right, the platform ends sooner. So I walk in that direction first. I consider briefly, if I should carry the suitcase, but decide against it. It is dark under the bench and it is unlikely that, even if someone were to pass by it, the suitcase will be noticed. The glimmer of lights from the platform on the track beside me, move with me. I walk for a while, gazing intently and continuously at them, until it makes me a little dizzy. Have you ever felt a bizarre restless desire, without reason, to jump onto the tracks just when a train is about to pass? Just to see what happens? Happens to me all the time. I have to turn away and look elsewhere until it passes. Presently, the platform ends and I turn back.

It is not until I am almost at the other end of the platform, that I notice it. Through a fissure in the parapet wall that lines one side of the platform to mark the perimeters of the railway station, I see a line of square white lights. The light disappears by the time I register it. I step back and forth a few times, until I locate it again. I move closer to the wall. The lights reveal themselves to be from windows of a train compartment. On each side of it, I see the ends of adjacent compartments. Through the windows, I spot human outlines. It is a train! The porter was wrong! There still is a train tonight! I rush back to my bench and pick up the suitcase. The dog, I notice, has slipped away.

Of the long line of ticket counters, only one is open at this hour. A pleasant young girl smiles sleepily from behind the grilled window. I ask her for tickets and she explains to me that there are no more trains for the rest of the night. “But you are making a mistake!” I tell her, “there is another train! I have seen it just now!” She looks bemused. “No Sir,” she explains again, “there is no train.” “What rubbish!” I scream, “are you stupid? I have seen it myself, I said!” Her forehead creases. “What train, Sir,” she asks, “where have you seen it?”

I tell her. She looks at me strangely. “You want tickets for that train?” she asks. I am thoroughly exasperated by now. “Yes yes,” I say, “that very train! Is there a problem?” “No, just that…”she starts to say and then pauses. “Wait”, she says, “I will consult the station master.”

I throw my hands up but she does not see it, for she is gone by then. I wait impatiently. She returns, and I can say this confidently since I’ve been watching the clock all the while, seven minutes later. “Has the Station Master agreed to offer me a ticket?” I ask her testily. She busies herself with typing whatever it is that she needs to type for a ticket to be produced. After she hands it to me and I glance at it to confirm the requisite details, I ask her if she will tell me how to get to the train. “I saw it through a crack in the wall. I didn’t have time to find a route.” I tell her. She offers me directions. As I am about to leave, she says, “There’s another train in just less than three hours Sir. Are you sure you don’t want to wait for that one?” I don’t even bother to answer. I look back once and see her smiling sadly at me.

The train is scantily populated, as befits the time. I walk past a few compartments before entering one. It appears empty. I pick a seat and stuff my suitcase under it. Then I pace the entire compartment a couple of times. It is indeed empty. The train begins to move.

I drift off to sleep. I do not know if I dream, since I never remember them when I wake up. But when I do, I find another man sitting opposite me. He is a middle aged man, quite unremarkable, except for his strange choice of attire. He wears a woolen overcoat, under which, I catch glimpses of a sweater. A muffler is coiled around his neck and he holds one glove in the other gloved hand. When he realized I am awake, he smiles feebly and greets me.

“Are you alright?” I ask him, “it isn’t that cold, is it?”

“No,” he says, “I always put these on when I travel at night.”

I nod disinterestedly. Outside, a full moon shines brightly. I wonder why it has escaped my notice so far. It seems to be a cloudless night, although it is difficult to say, since the lights inside the compartment reflect off the glass and obscure the view. The other man has dozed off. I get up and walk to the toilet. When I come out, I find one of the doors to the compartment unlatched. It creaks softly. I open it wide and stare outside. A full wind blows into my face and I shut my eyes for a few seconds. The train, I sense, is moving at great speed.

The view outside is surreal. The train is blazing its way through a bridge. The sky is indeed clear, and bathed in moonlight. The moon is a perfect circle, and occasionally, small wisps of cloud flow across it. When they do, they look like paper burnt at the edges. I look for stars, expecting to find whole clusters of them, but find only one, that shines brilliantly a little to the left of the moon. I am not sure if it is, in fact, a star. It could be - probably is - Venus. Below, everything is pitch-black. I wonder what this bridge crosses over. The train is still over it – bridge of great length. Almost as if it were crossing an ocean. But that couldn’t be – there wasn’t an ocean on this route. I made a mental note to check what it could be when I reached my destination in the morning.

I lean out of the train and count the compartments. There are twelve. The light of the moon, strangely, does not touch the land. Everything lies in darkness. Just the train with its luminescent windows. I wonder what this scene must look like from a vantage point outside the train. A stark moon. One shining planet. And the train as a streak of white light suspended in the darkness.

I see a face appear at the door of the next compartment. It belongs to an old woman. She wears a scarf that hides her hair. The scarf flutters in the wind. I smile at her. She smiles back. I resume staring at the moon.

Through the corner of my eye, I detect movement. I turn and find that the lady has taken her scarf off and her hair, long and grey, blow eerily behind her. She is staring at me. I don’t know what you say. So I smile again. She whispers something, but I can’t hear her. The wind carries her voice in the opposite direction. Then she jumps.

I am so shocked, I become paralyzed. It is perhaps that I even stopped breathing momentarily, for when I regain my composure, I find my chest heaving, drawing in great gusts of air. I keep staring at the door, where the lady was until a few minutes ago, almost hoping that I hallucinated and that she will appear again. Or maybe, if I hallucinated, there wasn’t a lady at all. Another face peeps out. It is not the old lady. It is a young woman, extremely pretty, and she smiles at me before I can. I smile and then remember about the old woman and start to tell her what I have seen. She shakes her head and waves her hand before I am through the first sentence. Then she jumps.

And now I notice the macabre spectacle. On each side, at every door, I see faces. They appear, stay there mutely for a few seconds and jump. A dozen bodies together, almost in unison. Their faces are replaced by others’ and then they jump. Thus it continues. I am so struck by horror, I cannot take my eyes of it. I realize I do not even see what I see. Indeed, my vision appears from that vantage point of my imagination, and I see from there, in addition to the moon, Venus and the train, bodies, their backs lit by the train lights, in free fall. Then they disappear.

Someone places a hand on my shoulder. I turn to find the man who was sitting next to me. “No! No!” I scream, “don’t push me!” He shakes his head and pulls me in, instead. He drags me to my seat. From inside his overcoat, he produces a flask. The brandy flows warmly into my stomach. The sound of the train comes back to me. It is still on the bridge and still at great speed.

“What train is this? What is happening? Did you see what is happening outside? Did you see!” I sputter

“Yes, I know.” He says.

I gulp down more brandy.

“You shouldn’t have forced yourself on this train.” His voice is deep and rich.

“What train is this? What train is this! Oh my God!”

“It is the train of suicides,” He says, “on every full moon.” He continues to speak for a few more minutes.

“What? The Government! What rubbish!” It seems my voice returns to me, “that is just bullshit! Such a thing could never exist!”

“But it does.”

“No, it doesn’t! If it did, everybody would know!”

He smiles wanly. “Well, everybody does.”

“And…and, who are you then? Why are you here?”

“Oh,” he says and places a hand firmly on my shoulder, “I am here to make sure nobody has a change of heart.”

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Short Story - The Stories of Borges

The first Borges I read was when a friend sent me an electronic version, doubtless not paid for, of Death and the Compass. Such an impression did it have upon me, that I hurried to a bookstore the same evening in search of more. They told me they did not stock Borges and had not done so in twenty years. I returned home dejected but determined to find it elsewhere the next day.

In those days, I lived in Ahmedabad, a city of somewhat meager literary ambition. Over the course of the next few days, I found out just how meager its ambitions really were, for nowhere in the entire city could be found even a scrap of paper with the name Borges on it. Indeed, it appeared as if my lips were the first from which anyone had heard that name escape. The closest someone came, was when one bookstore owner, with eyes lit up, scurried to the musty innards of his store and returned with a copy of A Clockwork Orange by Burgess.

There were, of course, versions of his work available online. My friend sent me a few more. But I believed, and still believe, reading from an odorless computer screen can never substitute the romance of a creased copy in hand. Can you imagine sitting at an idyllic café, without work, and lazily stare into a computer for hours? I can. It looks absurd.

Anyway, I read one or two more of what my friend sent. It only strengthened my conviction that a printed copy must be found. I could’ve ordered a copy online from Amazon, but at that stage, I was a student and dependent wholly on the pocket money that my parents doled out, and that money was lesser than even the cost of shipping Amazon quoted. So I waited till it was time to visit Kolkata again, a few months later.

My luck turned, as I’d expected it would, almost the minute I entered Kolkata's renowned College Street. This was after all the place where, once earlier, I’d found a copy of the Communist Manifesto’s original 1848 publication. The first store I asked at, the storekeeper shrugged ruefully and said they’d just sold their last copy yesterday. There must be other stores, I asked. Yes, there must be, he answered and pointed towards the dark alley that wove further in. There are a million stores in there. Lanes and by-lanes. Labyrinths, he added and winked. I smiled and moved on.

I finally found success in the fourth store, tucked away in the remotest corner of College Street, where the smell of books had, over the years, permeated the walls and the rusted iron shutters. The owner, a wizened old man, nodded when he heard the name and then bent down and disappeared under the counter. I waited patiently, the sound of shuffling and scratching provided evidence that the man was still under the counter and had not disappeared into the pages of a book like in some Borgesian fantasy. Presently he rose again, with a book in each hand, which he then slammed against one another to rid them of the gathered dust, which rose in dirty wisps starkly illuminated in the forlorn ray of light that trickled in through a termite hole in one of the boarded windows. Labyrinths, read the cover of one and The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory, read the other. They were Penguin Classic publications, both, which were fine in themselves, but since my hopes were raised considerably higher by this time, I enquired if perhaps an older, more exotic publication of the same works could be found. The man shook his head sadly and just as I was about to leave, he said that he once did have a copy of the original Viking Penguin publication of Collected Fictions, in which the stories of Shakespeare’s Memory first appeared. Unsure of what my reaction to this piece of information should be, I merely shrugged. “A man bought it from me three years ago,” he continued. “My bad luck” I said, intending it as a final word in, what I at that point considered a futile conversation.

“Terrible luck, in fact,” he said, “you know what he found in that book?”

I waited for him to continue since I gathered this was a rhetoric question and one that he couldn’t possibly expect me to know the answer to.

He pondered over something for nearly a minute before speaking again.

“But before that, tell me, have you read any of the stories from Shakespeare’s Memory?”

I told him I had not.

“Will you please read the one called Blue Tigers right now? It is important for the story I have to narrate.”

I looked at him quizzically, gauging if he intended all this as some sort of inexplicable joke. He looked earnestly back at me. I opened the book in question and studied the Table of Contents. Blue Tigers, it informed me, was only 12 pages long. I looked at the watch and shrugged.

“Alright,” I said, “I will read it if you will offer me a place to sit.”

He disappeared under the counter again and returned with a metal folding chair that creaked open.

I read. When I’d finished, I looked up to find the man staring intently at me.

“It’s a wonderful story. And perhaps his only one set in India?” I said.

“Yes, yes, it’s a great story!” he said impatiently, “but now I must continue my story.”

I asked if he could offer me a cup of tea to go with his narration. He responded with the usual exuberance of a Bengali on the subject of tea, shouting into the interiors of the store to an, as yet, invisible assistant to prepare two cups. It arrived almost immediately, accompanied by a plate of crumbling dog biscuits and a packet of cigarettes. He lit one and asked me if I’d like one. In those days, I did not smoke.

Then he narrated his story:

It is about that copy of the original publication of Collected Stories I mentioned earlier. A man, of considerable means I later learnt, bought it from me about three years ago. When I handed the copy over to him, he flipped casually through it, like most people do when they buy a book. As the pages fluttered past the grasp of his left thumb and into right thumb’s, something fell out and down to the floor. He picked it up and we studied it. It was a small, almost completely round stone, blue in colour. It is strange that such a thing should not cause a noticeable bump while inside the book, but evidently it had not. As we examined it, it fell to the floor again. The man bent down to pick it up again and when he straightened again, I saw his eyes were flashing. I asked him if something was the matter. He simply held up his open palm. In it, I saw incredulously, were now three stones instead of one. He dropped them again, this time intentionally. This time, his palm rose from behind the counter before he did. In it were now so many stones, all the same size, that I couldn’t at once count how many. Blue Tigers, I whispered in a quivering voice and he nodded gravely. The magical stones blue stones that multiply at will! He said. He pulled out a wallet from his trouser pocket and extracted five hundred rupee notes from it. He handed them to me, without word. I accepted. Then he walked out.

The man stopped and sipped once more from his cup.

“What an extraordinary story!” I said, still skeptical, “and this man, he never returned, did he?”

“He did return. Two years later.” The man said, “One day, I found the same man standing near the entrance of this store again. He was the same man, but for one remarkable change. Running down his cheek and through to his neck was a deep angry scar.”

Form of the Sword now?” I said half jokingly.

“Ah, you have read it,” the man said, ignoring the sarcasm, “that is good.”

“Sure is,” I said, “or I might’ve had to sit here and read it now.”

The man continued.

I asked him what had happened to him. And this is the story he narrated to me:

That day, after we found those stones in the book, I went back home in a daze. I had, of course, decided by then that I would pursue this for as long as it took. So, I read that story, Blue Tigers, again, to check if there is any indication in it of which village on the foothills of the Himalayas, it was set in. There’s isn’t. But the descriptions sounded fairly close to either the Garhwal or the Kumaon region and so, I set out as soon as I could, for Dehradun. From there I went to Rudraprayag, choosing it above others for my fascination with it ever since I read Corbett’s story of the man-eating leopard. Anyway, from Rudraprayag, I travelled through the hills into every village that the locals named, and everywhere I went, I asked if they had ever heard of the existence of such mystical blue stones as were in my pocket. For seven months, I travelled and found not a single soul who could help me. At the end of those seven months, I returned to Dehradun, severely ill and dejected. While I recuperated, I pondered about what could be done next. I re-read Blue Tigers. It got me no further. I decided I would drop the stones into a river and return to Kolkata. That evening, in a long time, I found myself relaxed and in an agreeable mood. I had a few drinks at the bar and returned to my hotel late at night and that is when I remembered Corbett again. Wasn’t there a story in which he describes mysterious lights up a mountain in the dark? Almost exactly the kind of superstition the villagers of Borges’s village harboured? I spent the night unable to sleep. The next day, I searched the city frantically for a bookstore that stocked the works of Corbett. I found one fairly easily; Corbett is still a popular fellow in that part of the country, evidently. Had I been adept at the internet, I might’ve saved myself the trouble of reading through his books again, but since I was not, I had to do it the hard way. I read whatever I could sitting at the store, and brought the rest back to the hotel with me. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, in The Talla Desh Man-eater story, in The Temple Tigers collection. Corbett mentions sighting mysterious lights going up a hillside at night and the villagers’ singular reactions to them.

The next day, I travelled to Almora and from there to Talla Desh. Throughout the journey, I could barely sit still with excitement. If indeed it was true that it was the same village that the two men describe, how incredible would that be!

I was right! The first person I showed the blue stones to in Talla Desh, looked at me wide-eyed and refused to answer my questions. The same thing happened with half a dozen other people. By and by, I found a saintly man who, though distressed at the sight of the stones, agreed to speak to me. He told me the name of the village I sought and how I could get there. When I reached there, it was of course summer, and the hillsides looked very different from what one would’ve visualized them through Borges’s words. I did not waste any time there and showed them the stones. Remarkably, none of them shrank away like the people of Talla Desh. They looked at me and smiled and their eyes became sad. I explained to them the sequence of events that had led me here. They nodded gravely but said nothing. That evening, there was a knock on my door and I found an old, grizzled lady standing outside. I invited her in. The first words she spoke were a name. Vincent Moon, she said. Vincent Moon? I asked, disbelievingly. She repeated the name. “But how can that be?” I asked, “Vincent Moon isn’t a real person! He’s just…he’s just…” She did not let me finish, “Vincent Moon” she said again, this time more vehemently. Then she traced a line down her throat and said “Scar. Vincent Moon. Scar.” For the rest of the night, she had my full attention. This was her story:

Many years ago, a man called Vincent Moon had come to their village. He had a large scar running down his face, which the villagers deeply distrusted. He had asked to be taken to the top of the mountain, where the blue stones were. Everybody had refused. He spent a year with them, trying to convince them to partake in his adventure, until one night, he had sneaked up there, alone, and returned with a handful of those stones. Within a month he had gone crazy and another month later they had found his battered body in the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain. He had climbed up again and evidently jumped. They had sold off all his stuff to pawnshops and wherever else they could; he also had various books with him. They had never found the stones.

This is the story she told me. I surmised one of those books was the Collected Stories and a stray blue stone had somehow made its way into it. The complete truth, nobody would ever know. Vincent Moon? From Form of the Sword? A friend of Borges’s? A character of Borges’s imagination somehow magically come alive? And he had evidently arrived having read Blue Tigers. So Borges had written the story before that. How could that be? Was it that Moon had come in the same quest that I had? Perhaps Moon had found the blue stone in the book before he had arrived, just as I had! Was there a whole universe of Borges’s characters that actually existed in some unknown dimension?

At this point, the old bookstore owner said, the man had finished his story. The tea cups were empty by now; at their bottoms, globs of soppy wet biscuits remained. I was still skeptical, but it was a darn good story. In those days, I had only begun to think of myself as a writer, and I found it important to appreciate the exquisiteness of the yarn either the old bookstore owner or that other man with the scar on his face had woven.

“But,” I said, “what about the scar he carried? Where did that come from?”

“I asked him. But he wouldn’t tell me. “It’s a secret I will never tell anybody” He said”

I walked out of College Street some time later, my head full of wondrous imaginations. Ever since I’d decided to start writing seriously, I’d always sought ways of acknowledging the inspiration I’d derived from the authors I’d read and admired. So far, I’d been largely unsuccessful, offering shoddy and direct references that meant nothing. And now there was this story. But it needed an end. Or at least, some semblance of an end. I walked past a bar and realized I was drenched in sweat. I decided to go in for some beer.

The place was almost empty, except for the bartender, a shabby waiter and a man on a barstool hunched over a glass of whiskey. The place smelt faintly of vomit. I made my way to a barstool and ordered a beer. The other man sat to my left. He turned his head towards me and glanced disinterestedly, and resumed looking into his glass. I wished him afternoon. He turned again, this time completely and smiled. An old, dry scar ran down the left side of his face and throat and disappeared into his shirt collar. The beer arrived. After two sips, I whispered to myself to check if my voice had returned. Then I addressed him again.

“Excuse me, Sir. Can I speak to you for a minute?”

“Yes?” He said, in a rich baritone.

Haltingly, I recounted my encounter with the old bookstore owner. He listened gravely, occasionally furrowing his brows and shaking his head, as if to say this was not exactly how it had happened. When I finished, he turned to the bartender and ordered another glass.

“Yes, it was I” he said.


“So, you thought that old man was making it up, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes, sort of”

“Do you think I am made all of it up?”

“I…I am not sure. I don’t know.”

He smiled. We stared silently at each other for a while. Then he spoke again.

“You know, I did reach Talla Desh. After that, well, who knows?”

I remained silent.

“It is a fitting tribute, but, don’t you think?”

“To Borges?”


“I suppose so.”

The bartender reappeared and filled my mug. I had so many questions in my head, I didn't know what to say to the man. Presently, he spoke himself.

“I know you want to ask me more. But you are not sure how, is it not? Well, tell you what, I will tell you the story of the scar myself. Perhaps it is true, perhaps it is not. After the point up to which you’ve heard the story, and whether or not that itself is true is a matter of conjecture, but let us play along for now – after that point, I realized there wasn’t much else I could do. The stones had taken up too much of my time, and I was afraid I would lose my sanity too. So I returned to Delhi. I put the stones in a bag and gave it away to a beggar. But I needed a story – you see, I had ambitions of becoming a writer then. And I wondered how I would end it. Of course, I could’ve ended it anywhere, for such a story is hardly expected to have a conventional end anyway. But I wanted to give it one. As an experiment, you see. A ridiculous tale with a conventional end. So I worked out the rest of the story in my head. I travel to Argentina and look for Vincent Moon. He is dead, yes, but if he has indeed existed, he must’ve left some traces. A family or a business. Something. In Argentina, I somehow – I never did manage to flesh this out, or maybe I don't want to tell you – stumble upon a mythical town, inaccessible to all, where Borges still lives with all his characters. Moon is there too. And Borges tell mes that it was in fact he who is writing this story and that it is I who am a part of his imagination. I refuse to believe it and want to return. He tells me that the only way out is if I allow myself to become a character in one of his other stories, in which case, he can end my story there and I become redundant and he has no further need of me. I choose Moon. Magically, a scar appears on my face. And I return" He paused.

"So?"I asked.

"So? Well, if this was to be the story, I would actually need the scar, I thought. And so I made myself this.” He ran his index finger over it.

The silence hung between us. We finished our drinks. I paid my bill and began to leave. Then I turned and asked him, “And why did you not write the story then?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just couldn’t. As you can see, this still wasn't a conventional end. I couldn't come up with one. Maybe I am not a writer, after all.”

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Short Story - The Ferris Wheel

But for the gigantic Ferris wheel that towered over it, the town was utterly unremarkable. A handful of brick houses, painted white and with grilled square windows, lay scattered about, perimetered by short thick boundary walls that kept the stray dogs away. A solitary road, covered in dust with disuse, passed through the town and continued on, on either side, in a straight line across the unending, barren plains. No vehicle had been seen on this road for many years; the wizened elders of the town spoke wistfully of a time when each day, in the early morning light, a long line of trucks, came and went, and the kids ran behind them for as long as they could, and sometimes came back with lozenges that the drivers had offered them. Not even a mailman came now, for everyone the townsfolk knew lived in the town, and there was no need for a letter to be written or received.

Nobody remembered how the Ferris wheel had come to be there. It had been there for as far back as the oldest memories would go. It belonged to the family that had a different last name than everyone else’s and had been passed on from generation to generation like an heirloom. In the evenings, the wheel was lit up with a million yellow-red bulbs, and the entire town made its way to it for a ride. They waited patiently for their turn to arrive, indeed often allowed the kids to break line and run up ahead of them in the queue; after sundown, when the children were no longer allowed on it, the elders rode the wheel and stared into the moonlit distances with tears in their eyes. There were no tickets; the family was recompensed with free food and a place to live.

The family, two middle aged men, their wives and the old invalid patriarch, lived in a cottage right next to the wheel. Throughout the day, the two men toiled on the wheel, cleaning and oiling and fixing, while the wives cooked their meals and looked after the patriarch. The patriarch, whom the rest of the village had rarely seen since the incident, remained in bed throughout, moaning occasionally whenever a sharp spasm shot through his wasted muscles and bones. On some evenings, when the weather was pleasant and the patriarch was in a good mood, the two men, his adopted sons, carried his cot outside so he could see his beloved Ferris wheel. On such days, the queue below the wheel appeared shorter than usual and nobody rode after sundown. They had, several times, asked the family to not bring the patriarch so near the wheel again, but his two sons had remained defiant. There was one time when the entire town threatened to never ride the wheel again and stop offering them food. For ten days, they did not; the brothers still spent the day working at the wheel but in the evening when nobody arrived, they took turns to ride the wheel themselves with their wives, while their father lay on the cot below, watching them. The lack of food, it appeared, did not bother them. On the eleventh day, the kids returned with their mothers, and a couple of days later, so did the fathers.

Though there were various versions of the story of what happened to the patriarch all those years ago, they varied only in the minor details. The story went thus:

The patriarch was six years old when it happened. In those days, he was like any other kid his age, oblivious and happy. It was his father who worked the wheel then. The boy hadn’t ever been on the wheel till then, of course, for kids below the age of six weren’t allowed on it. On his sixth birthday, like had been the tradition in the family for many generations, he was bathed with rose-scented water, and odes of the family’s unknown, mysterious religion were sung. His father then spent the rest of the day with him, explaining to him the many intricacies of the wheel and that he was now as much the owner of it as his father. When the hour came, they placed him in one of the gondolas, to the sounds of conch shells blown into.

But then, something strange started to happen. The moment he entered the gondola, the wheel began to move by itself. It moved slowly at first, and the father tried to stop it with his hands, for he thought it was merely a stray gust of wind that had caused the movement. But it didn’t stall. It continued to move and pick up speed. By the time the gondola was halfway up, the wheel had begun to rotate as fast as anyone had ever seen it. The boy began to cry. The people, gathered below, who had stood staring up until then, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing, eventually snapped back into action. They shut the power supply and when somebody suggested that putting an obstacle in its way might help, they found a long sturdy ladder and dragged it to the wheel, so its sides brushed against the wheel’s. The wheel did not stop. Each time the gondola with the boy in it came down to its lowest point, they caught glimpses of him trapped inside, staring back at them.

For two hours the wheel rotated thus, and would not stop. And then they saw the grilled gate of the gondola swing open and the next second, the boy jumped. In a few minutes, the wheel came to a standstill. The boy lay in a pool of blood, miraculously alive but robbed of the use of his legs forever.

That the boy, now the patriarch, had the devil in him was unanimously agreed upon.

He moved around on crutches for a few years. He even tried convincing his father that he could still help with the wheel. His father refused to let him touch the wheel, but agreed that he could collect the bread and other food that the people brought for them. He did it for one day, forcing himself to not look at the wheel, for whenever he did, he could see kids like him on it, and it made him cry. The next day, nobody turned up. It emerged that the town would have nothing to do with the wheel if the boy was to be present near it, in plain sight. That evening, he told his father that he would stay indoors. He went to bed later in the night and never got out of it since.

By and by his father died. The town became worried that, with him, the Ferris wheel and their evenings riding it would die too. But then, one morning, they found two teenage boys cleaning the wheel. When asked who they were, they said they were adopted sons of the patriarch. The Ferris wheel survived.

It had been twenty years since.

One day, the town woke up to torrential rains. They looked out of their windows in amazement, for it hadn’t rained in three years. They poked their hands tentatively out; the raindrops were exploded in their palms in small, frosty bursts. The sky had turned an unnatural grey and in the distance, lightning spread like fissures on parched soil. The clouds hung so low, they seemed to touch the top of the Ferris wheel.

The rain fell for a month and nobody ventured outside their homes. Then, all at once, it stopped raining one morning. The clouds turned paler, and a red glow seeped into them from the horizons. Immediately, everyone rushed to the Ferris wheel. They found the two brothers sitting on the soggy soil and staring at the wheel. It wouldn't start, they said. The motor had remained submerged in water for too long. They'd drained the water out and tried everything they could, but it wouldn't start. The town hung around the wheel for the rest of the day, staring suspiciously at its parts and offering suggestions. Nothing worked. The wheel stayed resolutely still.

The next morning, the Patriarch woke up to an unnatural stillness - a stillness that seemed to him like it pervaded the world and not just his cottage. And there was a smell – a damp pungent smell, which made his nostrils itch. It was a smell he had smelled in his most terrible dreams, in which he had visions of the Ferris wheel on fire or disintegrating into the ground. He did not move for a long time, waiting for a common sound, a whiff of the usual arid breeze that would pierce the stillness. None came. The crutches, unused for decades, stood by the bedside. He looked at them and sighed. He felt nervous but not agitated. Perhaps, he had seen this in one of his dreams.

He walked out to a crimson sky, with patches of fire, out of which bellowed out black smoke. On both sides, the barren plains were obscured by huge columns of smoke escaping the earth, the same colour as the smoke in the sky. The town was burnt to ashes. All that remained was his cottage and the Ferris wheel.

He smiled. The ends of the crutches dug into the black soil as he made his way to the wheel. When he reached the wheel, he turned and looked back at the devastation. Then he helped himself into a gondola. The wheel began to turn.