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.

“Oh”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

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