Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saving Money

Classroom sessions ended, twice every year, at the end of a semester, well before the exams began. The intervening period – ‘Study Leave’ was the college’s name for it – comprised of a marked increase in alcohol sales, comfortably above the annual average in Dhule. The nights were spent in frenzied binges that ended, near dawn, when hands could no longer guide a glass to the lips. Bodies lay sprawled in hostel corridors and out on the street until they were deposited into a room by sweepers. There, they remained until the next evening, covered in slowly drying, flaking sweat and, often, not much else. And then it began all over again. It is likely that, had the weeks of soot and grime been washed off these bodies during such times, it’d be found that their complexions had turned decidedly fairer, for the Sun hardly ever shone upon them. They may as well have been living on the Arctic Circle.

In the middle of all this, there came and passed a mock examination that the college conducted in anticipation of the actual university exams. Not even the most dedicated students appeared for it, choosing instead, to go back to their homes and spend that time studying on their own, while being taken care of by deliriously happy mothers . Kaushik, too, chose to go back home.

The going back itself, he had turned into an adventure. Since there wasn’t a train station in Dhule, the prescribed and widely used method of travel was buses, privately run, that looked like they were occasionally cared for. There were several that plied, daily, between Dhule and Ahmedabad; a ten hour ride through the night while one slept as comfortably as is possible on a reclining seat. This, however, wasn’t Kaushik’s preferred travel plan; he took the groaning, cracking at the seams, stiflingly crowded state transport bus. It rattled along minor streets, instead of the main highway, and stumbled frequently into empty bus stations, where it shuddered to a stop, thus nullifying whatever little wind its motion artificially created, and remained for interminably long periods. He rode it up to Surat, a city of much wealth and enterprise but no aesthetics, halfway between Dhule and Ahmedabad, having slept fitfully throughout.

One time, he had boarded the bus and found two girls from his college, one pimply and the other plump, both love interests of friends of his, already seated. He stopped abruptly when he saw them, considering whether or not he should show himself, while scanning frantically for seats where he could be hid from their sight. The moments wasted in this state of indecision absolved him of having to make a choice, for the pimply girl spotted him and waved a cheerful Hi. He reciprocated with as much cheeriness as he could muster, given his conversational skills in the company of women. Besides, he was returning at the end of nearly six months and, in his mind as much as in others’, stank unpardonably. The second of his concerns was relieved within a few minutes, for he soon realized that they were returning home after a while too.

Of the two, his preference was distinctly for the plump one, who, as soon as the bus began to move, fell asleep. The pimply one, who Kaushik wished would fall asleep, did not. So he spent the rest of the night, grunting and offering the odd interjectory word while she rambled on about, amongst other things, how she wished to work at NASA – an ambition that Kaushik thought hilarious for he was convinced she couldn’t tell a capacitor from the resistor. When Surat arrived, he got off the bus as quickly as he could, before the girl could get halfway through an ominous sounding sentence, one that he imagined would end in a plea to stick with them for the rest of the way.

In subsequent years, especially when his fumbles and struggles with Ritika began, he looked back upon this and other occasions and wondered he should’ve been more open, tried harder to be interested.

Once in Surat, he had the option of continuing on in the bus or taking a train for the remainder of the journey. He usually took the train.

The train station was a quarter of an hour away from where the bus left him and he walked to there, feeling the slight chill of the night, no matter what the time of the year - an indication that the desert underneath, upon which the cities of the region were built, still breathed. Yellow-orange halogen lights lorded over empty streets, lightening them but not the constructions on either side, which was just as well, for had they done so, the illusion of romanticism would’ve washed away. It occurred to Kaushik in subsequent years, when he tried to recall those nights, that such streets – halogen-lit and dark at the corners where imagination was allowed to fill in the rest - always appear the same in memory, no matter what city they belong to.

The train station too, at those hours, looked like it had seen grander times. The queues at the ticket counters were short, populated only by haggard looking men off night duty or with a stack of newspapers around them. The platforms were long lines of white tube-lights and nothingness - the odd porter hurrying along, smelling of dried sweat on decayed leather, a rare sign of civilization. Sometimes, the sound of running water on utensil, flat and gradually dampening, punctuated by harsh clamours of the most recently washed joining the rest of the pile. The occasional lonely hoot of a locomotive on its way to the shed. Shuttered tea, snack and newspaper stalls. An empty bench in an unlit corner.

He waited at the station until about four in the morning, which is when all at once, a flurry of trains begins to arrive, and the world comes alive again. He never reserved a seat and therefore entered into one of the unreserved ‘General’ compartments that were attached at the front and rear ends of the train. There was hardly ever a place to sit; he usually sat on the floor near the entrance, his legs dangling outside, the wind blowing into his face, tiny bits of used match sticks, cigarette butts and groundnut shells pinching his backside. Food was passed around, offered and accepted with soiled, sticky hands and grins stained with tobacco. He overheard conversations, mundane and exotic, and sometimes indulged in them. Seats were magically found whenever an old man or woman entered the compartment. And there was much bargaining with hawkers and bickering amongst themselves– men’s loud voices and women’s mumbled responses. It was all before Kaushik had an IPod or knew of phrases like ‘the human condition’.

He reached home before his father left for work and the family had their breakfast together, over which, the two elders explained to him the safety and good sense in opting for private buses and the lack of both in how he travelled. He laughed them away, stating he’d saved more than a hundred bucks this way and pointing out how the same father, in years past - when he’d thrown tantrums for having been bought a regular pencil instead of one with a tiny plastic hand at the top which, the manufacturers claimed was to let kids scratch their own backs during the prickly heat of summer - had intoned gravely, ‘A rupee saved is a rupee earned’.

In his own mind, however, he liked to think that that wasn’t the point.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Kaushik hated spending nights away from his apartment when he was in Mumbai. He did not know why, but there it was. Even in college, after nights of frenzied drinking in different rooms and on the hostel terrace, that left in its wake a floor full of empty bottles clinking against each other, vomit, piss and spent bodies, he would stagger alone on the empty tar road that ran through the campus, shivering slightly in the morning chill, looking for a cup of tea, fancying himself to be the tragic hero of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Sometimes he would find his tea, most times he wouldn’t. But he would return to his own room at the end of it anyway.

Ashish and Ritankar had long since realized this, and so, without ever explicitly discussing the subject, it had always been understood that it was to be Kaushik’s apartment where most of their weekends would be spent.

Tonight, however, it was to be Ashish’s place. He’d shifted into a new apartment and was thrilled with its balcony and the view it afforded.

“It is like in Boston Legal!” he’d explained to the other two, “I’ve got beanbags, a small table on which to place the whiskey bottle and the glasses, we’ll be on the twentieth floor, the view’s awesome. One can sit there with one’s feet up, sipping whiskey, looking up at the night sky and down at the city lights. Just like those episodes end!”

Besides, Ashish’s parents were away for the weekend and he had the apartment to himself apart from the presence of his younger sister, who he’d assured them, wouldn’t get in the way.

Ashish’s Dad, the owner of a smalltime stocks & funds trading agency, after having witnessed his business wiped out during the recession, had had to liquidate most of his assets, including a spacious four room flat in a plush suburb of Ahmedabad to pay off his debts, and had since shifted to Mumbai with his wife and daughter. There wasn’t enough income in the family to pay the rents for two separate places, and so they’d all moved in with Ashish. The immediate fallouts of this were that Ashish had to rent a much larger apartment and that Ritankar and Kaushik were having to nod through Ashish’s incessant assertions that it was all going according to plan.

“It is going to be perfect,” he’d say, “when they spend some time in this city, they’ll start to see how I live and what I want out of life and they’ll get used to it. In a couple of years, it should all be stable, and I’ll have enough money saved to buy them an apartment in Ahmedabad so they can move back and then I’ll be free to go settle in Italy!”

“A provincial Italian seaside town. Or Tuscany.”

“Yes yes. Exactly.”

“And what happens when they start pestering you to get married?”

“Oh, we’ll see. I am hoping they wouldn’t. And if they do, well, we’ll see.”

It was in this new, larger apartment where the three were to meet. And so, Kaushik was now on a train that would, in a half hour, take him there. The evening rush had peaked and there was scarcely enough space to maneuver his hand so he could pick his nose if he wished to, while he stood squashed between men he did not know, smelling their day’s work on their bodies. He had a vision of a clean, dull, dutiful wife who waits in a cramped one bedroom apartment with flaked walls, a silent dinner, an absent son out with friends and her submission to her unwashed husband’s needs on a creaky cot in a stuffy room with a creakier ceiling fan and a window unopened in years.

His train of thought was broken by a sudden elbow to his rib. A station. People replacing other people. Among the new set, a girl, young and pretty. A definite oddity in the men’s compartment. Kaushik scanned the area around her for the male classmate that, doubtless, must exist. He found him half hid behind her, a frail boy with spiked hair and acne. Kaushik smirked. Leap of faith, he thought. The man next to him looked at him sharply and he realized he’d said it aloud and smiled apologetically. He resumed looking at the girl. She wore a pink t-shirt with a white bunny on it. The bunny’s eyes, strategically placed, sparkled with what Kaushik gathered were round glass chips. The lower half of her body was obscured by the bodies between them but that she’d be wearing jeans was a safe guess. What else could she? His thoughts turned to Ashish’s sister. He’d never met her. What would she be like?

She was a pleasant looking, slightly plump girl. She wore glasses and once when she took it off to wipe with her napkin, he noticed that she had a slight squint and that she had an old scar from a stitch running above her right eye. Instinctively, his fingers touched the spot under his chin where his own stitch marks were, from a bike accident in Lucknow, when on a stormy night on an unlit single-lane highway he’d slammed into a fallen tree and rolled directly into the path of an approaching truck. He’d gotten out of the way in time; a spare tire on the side of the truck had brushed his back while he stared wide-eyed into space, expecting the impact that never came. His injuries, apart from the peeled skin on his back, were all from the fall, including the one under the chin where his face had struck the road. He remembered clearly what he’d said when he’d cried out loud just before the truck brushed past him. “Fuck Motherfucker!” He’d said it in Hindi, of course, and it struck him that he’d never thought about how, if he were to write about the experience, he would do so. Images of old Arnold Schwarzennegger film posters swam into his mind; he imagined one with Arnold’s huge face and a sawed off shotgun with “Fuck Motherfucker!” written on it in bright red fonts and underneath, in smaller, more fragile fonts, “(In Hindi)”.

He laughed out loud and they all stared at him. Second time it has happened today, he said to himself.

“Oh,” he said, “nothing, just remembered an old joke.”


“Isn’t it time we let the wine flow?”


She stuck around for a drink or two, making the odd comment, asking a bunch of questions, stemming the flow of their conversation. The other two waited patiently while Ashish answered her, explained to her the jokes and the references they contained; they walked over to the edge of the balcony and stared at the sweeping cityscape, and smoked. It was indeed a grand sight. Before long, however, she excused herself quietly and, as Kaushik put it in his interpretation of the British Accent, “retired to her chambers.”

“So how’s the novel coming along?” Ashish asked. It was the first time he’d shown any interest in the subject.

“Still some way to go,” Kaushik said, “meandering all over the place at the moment.”


“Yeah. I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any definite plot emerging.”

“From whatever I’ve read, it doesn’t have much hope for a plot, does it?” Ritankar asked.

“I guess not. We’re just a bunch of armchair losers after all.”

“Too many Sal Paradises. We need a Dean Moriarty at some point.” Ritankar mused, stumbling a few times over Moriarty.

“And a bit of yab-yum perhaps. I wouldn’t mind it certainly.” Ashish said.

Kaushik grinned, “At this point, I estimate we are miles away from either.”

“Damn. We really do need to get out of here.”


“Or the French Provence.”

“Yeah sure. After you buy your parents that house in Ahmedabad.”

“About three years.”

“Be married by then.”

“This isn’t helping.”

“Here, have some more wine.”

As the night wore, the city grew quieter. The sound of heavy tires on tar accompanied by the nasal buzz of automotive engines broke the stillness occasionally. In another setting, Kaushik thought, this could be the sound of insects. Honeybees, probably.

“When I am drunk,” Ritankar said and then exhaled deeply a couple of times, his head lulling to one side.

“’When’ was not required in that sentence, I’d say.” Kaushik quipped.

Ritankar ignored him.

“When I am drunk,” he resumed, “it seems to me my ears become more sensitive. Everything sounds louder. Clearer. The clink of glasses. Those trucks on the highway. Water leaking from that tap in your washroom.”

“Yes. Happens to me too.” Kaushik said.

“So for the hearing impaired…” Ashish began before he was cut short by Kaushik.

“Yes. I thought of that. Low hanging fruit.”

Ritankar looked at the two, a little lost.

“What the fuck are you guys talking about?” he said, exhaling thrice between the sentence.

“Oh don’t bother. We are drunk too.”

“How wonderful would it be,” Ashish said, “when we’d have nights as these ending in the arms of women we met at a café.”

“And in the mornings, when we’d wake up, to find them gone, leaving behind baked bread, jam, eggs and fruit juice on the table.”

“And on the next evening, to find them at the café again. Continue with them if we liked them or smile politely and leave with other women…”

“Lets play some music.” Ritankar interjected.

“Yeah sure. The Carla Bruni variety.”

“I don’t have the speakers set up in this apartment yet.”


When the sun rose, they were still there.

“Oh, there’s hills there! Nice and lush, too!” Ritankar pointed.

“Yes. That’s the Goregaon Film City area. The National Park’s somewhere in that region too, I believe.” Ashish said.

“We must go there sometime.”

“Yes, how about now?”

“No, not now,” Kaushik said, “I am totally not in the mood for walking jungles at the moment. I am hungry though.”

“We can go have some breakfast downstairs.”

“You know a place?”

“No. Haven’t explored too much yet,” Ashish said, “but we could start today.”

“Or,” Ritankar said, “we could go to Café Ideal!”

“But that’s more than an hour away!”

“Yes, so what?”

“Isn’t a bad idea, Ashish,” Kaushik said, “we can.”

“And then come back all this way?”

“We don’t need to. My place is closer.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Short Story - Words

The wind grew stronger. It howled its way into the gaps of shut windows and doors – a path otherwise monopolized by sunlight – but there wasn’t a sun this afternoon, or maybe there was, hidden behind the angry, dirty clouds, but from the ground, it was difficult to say. In the distance, thunder clapped, as did the errant tin roofs of makeshift shanties.

Inside the old, crumbling mill, where the air smelt of rotten moss and animal excreta and where nobody had entered for any definite purpose in years, apart for vagrants and stray dogs, the two men stood facing each other. One of them wore a gray woolen cap, through the sides of which, strands of silvery white hair crawled out. The other man had a gun in his hands.

“How was that then?” asked the man with the gun.

The man with the woolen cap and silvery white hair did not immediately respond.

“Sounded alright,” he said finally, “you always have had a way with dramatic imagery. Woolen cap - Gun in hand isn’t bad at all! Sums up our situation here, quite effectively. Those first few lines though – the shut windows and thunder claps and all that – that sounded to me like you’ve been reading, or maybe rereading, Cormac McCarthy lately.”

“That has nothing to do with what I wrote!” the man with the gun fumed, “you condescending bastard!”

“Ah! So I take it that you have indeed been reading McCarthy, yes?”


“You might as well have included some Spanish dialogue, while you were at it. Given me a sombrero to wear instead of the woolen cap, perhaps?”


“Repetition. You already used that just now.”

“I am glad I am going to kill you!”

“So it appears.”


“Oh come on.”

An old mill. Abandoned. Walls smeared with soot and piss on both sides. Doors and windows fallen away, leaving behind ugly, blank gashes. A good thing in this gale. The wind’s fiercest gusts dissipate through there, the path of least resistance, letting the crumbling walls hold fort against the rest. Dry leaves, bits of paper and plastic blow in through the gashes. A smell of stagnant water, rust and piss. Strangely, there aren’t any cobwebs. There were once floor tiles, or maybe just stone slabs, but they’ve been stolen away, exposing the soil underneath, on which, now resides ankle-high undergrowth. Two men. Out of place. Middle aged perhaps. Difficult to say in the gloom. It is raining outside. They are dry. They must have been inside for a long time. One points a gun at the other. The other has his hands in his overcoat. Perhaps he has a gun too.

“You have a gun!” the man with the gun in his hand exclaimed.

The other man chuckled.

“I might. I leave it to the readers’ imagination. Unlike your narratives. All wonderfully described, all close-ended. No helpful pointers for the reader to exercise a brain cell or two.”

“Piece of shit!”

“Good. You are improving! Marginally.”

“Anyway, who’s to decide who described this better. I think yours is shit too. All lame showy minimalism.”

“I’ll decide. I am the published author here, aren’t I?”


“You want me to repeat the entire Architect response to that from the Matrix film? I have it all memorized, you know.”

“You are just a pompous piece of shit!”

“And a published author.”

“And that’s why I am going to kill you.”

“You didn’t even win the bet!”

“I don’t give a damn. I believe mine was better. Besides, I have the gun.”

“I might have one too.”


“The rain’s stopped.”


“The rain’s stopped. The wind’s dropped. I can hear the sound of vehicles on the street again.”

“Why did you do it?”


“Why did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I am talking about, asshole! Why did you ask the publisher to reject my manuscript?”

“It wasn’t any good.”


“I didn’t like it.”

“You’ve never liked anything I’ve ever done.”

“I enjoyed your fifth grade essay on your brother very much.”

They smiled, both of them.

“You are such an asshole.” The man with the gun said.

“You shouldn’t lose hope.”

“As long as you are alive, I have no chance!”

“And after I die?”

“Oh! The world will mourn your death. They’ll all be shattered. And in all that nauseating sympathy and mush, I will quietly sneak in my book. Be quite poignant. Sell well, I believe.”

“I see. So you are going to exploit my name to peddle your sorry literature.”

“It isn’t sorry literature!”

“Who cares?”

“Yes, exactly. Who cares? It will be name on the book.”

“It is my name too.”

“Who cares?”

“Repetition. Again. Your lack of creativity appalls me.”

“Who cares?” This time, with a sly grin.

“Whatever happened to your self esteem?”

“What about it?”

“You want to use my name.”


“The man you hate most.”


“Ironic. Must be tough living with that knowledge. I am glad I am not in your position.”

“And I am glad I am not in yours. At least I will be living for a while yet.”

“And then? When the euphoria of the first work fades away? The remaining years wallowing in self pity?”

“I’ll publish more. Grow out of your shadow.”

“My shadow. Yes, precisely.”


“I predict you’ll commit suicide before another decade is out.”

“We’ll see.”

“I had such a great obituary in mind for you.”


“No. Serious. I’ve spent years perfecting it. In my head, of course.”

The man with the gun, momentarily unsure, looked down at his trouser pocket while he fumbled inside for a cigarette with his hands, then all at once realized his error and jerked the gun into position again. The other man had made no attempt to move.

“Don’t fuck with me now!” he said.

“I am not.” The other man responded.

“Then what’s this about an obituary? What’s that got to do with any of this?”

“Oh nothing. Just a thought.”

“Tell me.”


“Fucking tell me or I’ll kill you right now.”

“I believe that’s what you intend to do anyway!”

“Tell me!”

“Nothing, really. I was just thinking, is all.”

“Go on.”

“I mean, this manuscript of yours, it isn’t that bad after all.”


“In fact, I think it might actually fly. Become a classic even, given the correct circumstances.”


“Yes. A legend around it. Like, maybe, a posthumous publication, you know. A premature end to what could’ve been a great career.”


“Yes. It always works out that way. Look at James Dean. There are those who think there wasn’t a greater actor. And yet, he did only three films. If he’d done more, who knows?”

“Stuff your movie references!”

“I was only saying.”

“Saying what?”

“Saying, if only you were to die, and this manuscript was to be published afterward, it could bring the glory you always wished for.”

“What about the obituary! This started with an obituary! Don’t fuck with me man! Don’t you dare fuck with me!”

“Ah yes, the obituary. Be honest with yourself. Who else but me could write a better obituary for you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Yes. So that’s what I was thinking. A tragic death. The publication of a masterpiece. The obituary as a catalyst. A great deal of dignity in that, no?”

“There is a cat meowing somewhere.”

“In Japanese myth…”

“Shut up! I know.”

“Are you crying?”

“No I am not! I don’t know.”

“What are you crying for, you idiot!”

“Shut up bastard!”

“Oh come on, you’re the one with the gun!”

“You might have one too.”


Monday, January 31, 2011

Short Story - Wrong Skills

When the benevolent old king died, the kingdom was flung into great turmoil. The feverish King, on his deathbed, in his final moment of lucidity, pronounced that which most of his subjects had hoped he would not – that after him, his son be made the rightful King. The collective gasps from everybody present in the room at the time drowned out the King’s actual last words, ones that he had meticulously prepared and rehearsed over the previous week.

That a ruler’s son would succeed his father to the throne was not the cause for concern. The problem was the son himself. It was a widely held belief that the boy was a retard. Indeed, there were whispered suggestions that he was not even the King’s own son and that the King had in fact enlisted the services of his closest minister to administer the requisite services upon the Queen.

Now, these insinuations, though vile, weren’t entirely unfounded either. It was common knowledge, that the King had, for many years remained childless, despite having changed wives and doctors numerous times, before there had finally arrived the news that the then Queen had miraculously delivered a son and that the King’s succession was, therefore, assured. The skepticism of his subjects found its roots in this miracle, and though the kingdom had rejoiced with great fervor, there had hung over the festivities a perceptible air of doubt, even mild discontent, for there was the matter of the King’s hugely popular teenaged nephew – son of his long dead brother – whom, the Kingdom had regarded as the next King with much fondness and whose life had suddenly become so utterly meaningless.

And then, over the next two decades, their hopes had slowly gathered wind again. From the outset, the young Prince had demonstrated a complete lack of appetite for learning. He fumbled when he spoke. . He couldn’t remember letters of the alphabet. He failed to remember the names of objects. He was clumsy with weapons and armour. He couldn’t ride a horse. He developed a pot belly. By the time he was fifteen, he had begun to go bald.

His only interest, it appeared, was food and it’s cooking. He spent hours in the kitchen with the royal chefs and servants. They were, of course, embarrassed by his presence and begged him to stay away so they could concentrate on their work, but he obstinately stayed on. The King was understandably dismayed by all of this. He forbade the Prince to visit the royal kitchens, to which the boy responded by locking himself up in his chambers for weeks, without food. It wasn’t until the Queen (against the wished of the King) promised to the Prince that not only would he be allowed to enter the kitchens but that she would accompany him there, that he agreed to emerge. Soon after, he became an indispensible member of the chef’s team; he showed such great aptitude for his work that in a year’s time, the chef let the Prince prepare entire meals for the palace, without supervision.

By and by, the King resigned himself to the ways of his son. He began to divert an increasing amount of attention to his nephew, who by this time, had turned into a fine young man. At dinner, the nephew regained his place next to the King and the two of them spent their time at the table speaking highly of the Prince’s cooking. The Prince was thrilled by their compliments. The Queen wept quietly inside the isolation of her chambers. The Kingdom again came to regard the nephew as their next ruler and so it was that when the King pronounced the wrong name on his deathbed, the kingdom was flung into great turmoil. The very next day, the nephew announced that he would leave the kingdom and refused to attend the crowning of the new King. He left and with him left hundreds of his most loyal men and women.

The first request the Prince made, to his appalled ministers whilst they were in consultations on the impending crowning ceremony, was that he be allowed to oversee the grand feast after the ceremony. That is impossible! They told him. They couldn’t let the King become a subject of ridicule! Now that he was no longer just a delinquent Prince but the ruler of a kingdom, there was the matter of keeping up appearances! They reasoned with him. But the Prince remained unmoved. There is only one thing I know to do well and though unworthy of Kings it may be, I believe my subjects should not be denied the best that I have to offer them. He said.

The day of the ceremony arrived. The crowd cheered and then fell silent, while the new King fumbled through his first address to them. Towards the end, some were openly jeering him and when it ended, polite applause was offered, and the kingdom entered the grand hall, venue of the grand feast, in a sombre mood.

But at some point during the feast, towards the end of the second course, they say, a remarkable thing happened. The subjects, quiet and despondent until then, suddenly started to find their voice again. There was laughter, isolated at first, but soon it had spread over the entire hall. By the time the feast ended, the hall was in an uproar. People danced on the tables in manic frenzy and when the King appeared before them, they screamed and chanted his name. The ministers were dumbfounded. They scratched their heads and looked quizzically at one another, unable to comprehend the incredible scenes being enacted before them. The King looked towards them and smiled, although later, in memory, it was to change into a smirk.

The grand success of the ceremony ushered in with it a period of magnificent joy and peace. The King allowed his ministers to decide matters of the state, ill equipped as he was to do so himself. Instead, he spent his days walking around the kingdom and mixing with his subjects. Often, he would stop at a house and offer to cook for them. The food he would cook would melt away the last remaining vestiges of cynicism from the minds of his subjects. The Kingdom prospered.

It went on for many years thus, before, the inevitable news trickled in. The nephew, together with a massive army he had built in the intervening years, was planning to attack the kingdom. The King consulted with his ministers and they suggested that the best course of action would be to send out a team of emissaries to negotiate peacefully. The severed heads, ghastly pale - the skin on the faces had flaked off from lying submerged in stagnant water for there had been a torrential downpour the previous day -, of the emissaries returned in a creaky chest.

Next, a troop of the kingdom’s finest warriors was sent out. At the end of a month, they had not returned. The ministers were at a loss. The King asked if more forces could be sent out, but the Ministers asked him to not do so, for there was no telling what had become of the ones sent earlier and that they would need as many at hand to defend their land when the enemies were upon them. One or two ministers broached the possibility of a surrender so further damage be spared, but this the King would not allow. And so they waited, fearful and desperate, for the dreaded forces to arrive.

The King spent his days increasingly confined to his chambers. He grew dejected and sad, and with him did the entire kingdom. He refused to venture out into the city, although he was urged to, in order to reinstate morale. What can I do! He cried. I can do nothing for them! I cannot save them! What can I do! Cook for them? Someone commented, wryly, that that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Then one day, the enemies arrived. It was a staggering sight. From their vantage points on the watchtowers, the men reported that the troops stretched for miles and miles; the last of the men weren’t even within sight. There was nothing that could possibly be done, the King was told, other than die a heroic death.

A heroic death! The King gasped. A heroic death! Why, I cannot even hold a sword without cutting myself!

That is when it occurred to him. The last thing, the only thing he could do. And so, he called upon his subjects to gather in the grand hall where his first feast had been, so he could address them in this time of despair.

You have seen the enemy advancing at us! He told them. And much as I would like to calm you, to assure you that everything will be well and we will defend our lands successfully, you know that it is not true. I am not the King that can save you, my subjects! And you have known this all along. We have spent some good years together, feasting and celebrating our lives. But I cannot be the King you will now expect me to be! There is nothing I can do to save you. And so, I propose to do the only thing I know how to do. One last time. A grand feast! The greatest celebration of our times yet! Food that nobody’s ever seen before! Revelry that will resound through times to come!

The grand feast began. The sound of the merriment floated through the wind and reached the enemies. The Nephew, seated at the dinner table with his chiefs, heard it and couldn’t suppress a chuckle. Fools! He laughed. The Chiefs joined in the laughter and when it subsided, returned pensively to their dinner. They lay in their beds staring at the darkness, kept awake by the delirium of their enemies, until suddenly near sunrise, all became quiet.

When they reached the gates, wide open, they found the town deserted. A bewitching aroma lingered in the air. They stumbled around the streets cluelessly, unsure of what to expect, until they reached the grand hall of the feasts, where they encountered the extraordinary sight of thousand s of men and women, piled over one another in wild orgies, eyes open in expressions of mad joy and bliss, stone dead, poisoned by what they had eaten.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Short Story - A Life Less Regular

It was to my third mail that I finally received a response from the man who, after having disappeared for nearly twenty five years, had been found to have returned to his home one fine day. His reply was a curt mention of a date and time; I had expressed a desire to meet him and, in the second and third mails, assured him that I was not a journalist and had no intention of publishing his story. I had, of course, lied. As a symbolic gesture, however, I had agreed to not carry notepads or other recording devices and, therefore, if the story is found to carry a tone more akin to a narration than a conversation, and lacking in specific details, you know why that is.

I spent a few hours in his neighbourhood, wandering around and striking up conversations at cafés, before I went in to meet him. It was one of those quaint colonies on the fringes of a big city where the same families had spent generations and would continue to do so. I learnt that nobody quite knew where he’d been all these years and how he’d miraculously reappeared. It appeared he rarely ever ventured outdoors since his return and hardly anybody had actually seen him. They spoke of obvious physical changes; the man was in his mid twenties when he disappeared. He belonged to an affluent family. His father had run a pretty successful business, something to do with auto spare parts, until he had died in a freak accident at a golf course when he had tripped on something and the golf cart behind him had run over his face. The business has gradually decayed and shut down.

I was ushered into the drawing hall by an old maid, who asked me to wait there. There wasn’t a sofa or a chair in sight. When she left the room, I walked to the window at one end of the room and found it overlooked a garden of weeds, mushrooms and wildflowers. I stood there waiting, smelling the musty, not disagreeable, smell of disrepair. Presently, I heard a man’s voice behind me and I turned to find him standing near the door into which the maid had disappeared earlier.

He was a frail man, stooped slightly, and when he extended his hand, I found it pale and exquisite, like that of a young woman. Greetings exchanged, we stood there in an uncomfortable silence, looking at each other sheepishly and then away, for several moments, and I was beginning to wonder how to begin when the maid returned with two plastic chairs. She asked if we’d like some tea. I nodded and he asked to be brought whiskey instead. I thought briefly if I should do so too but from the maid’s audible sigh I realized it wasn’t a habit she entirely approved of and decided against it.

“What do you do? Who told you about me?” He asked. He had a raspy, whispery sort of voice – the voice of a man not used to speaking and used to a lot of cigarettes, I surmised.

“Oh, I am just a, you know, I work for this glass manufacturing company, I am in the administration department. Quite boring actually.”

He nodded. “And where did you hear of me?”

“Oh, I don’t remember. I think a friend of mine has some relatives who live in this part of town – he may have mentioned you. It was over drinks, I remember that. Later, I asked him if he could get me in touch with you. He brought me your mail address about a month back. I have no clue how he got it.” I hoped he wouldn’t delve further. He did not.

“Do you know why I agreed to see you?”

I shook my head. He continued.

“Because you made at least seven fairly obvious grammatical mistakes in the twelve lines you wrote to me. Told me you are unlikely to have read anything beyond office memos. I avoid people who have an interest in literature.”

Instinctively I turned towards the huge wall mounted bookshelf in the room and I registered for the first time as strange that it did not contain a single book. Anyway, I wasn’t sure how he expected me to react to this strange explanation and remained silent, fighting back the obvious urge to ask what those grammatical errors were.

“So, what happened?” I asked and realized immediately how utterly clumsy the question was.

He chuckled. “That’s it? That direct?”

The maid arrived with her tray in time to spare me further embarrassment.

“Well,” he said after sipping the whiskey a couple of times, “I suppose there wasn’t another way. Unless you had the patience to become friends with me – and right now you don’t know if that’s even possible – the subject wouldn’t appear in course of a normal conversation.”

He gulped down the rest of the whiskey in his glass and filled it again.

“What would you say,” he asked me,” if I say I was trapped inside books all this time?”


“Yes, what would you say?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know what to say.”

He gulped down the contents of the second glass. Filled it again - this time, only ice cubes to go with the whiskey.

“But that is what happened.”

Over the next half hour, the man went on to narrate to me this astonishing story.

“As a kid, I used to make entries in a diary that my father had bought me, just random stories, completely lacking in even basic literary value. My father also bought me a bunch of books – some of the great classics in abridged, children’s editions – and I read them with great interest but precious little understanding. I used to try and copy the themes of those books into what I wrote myself. So after I read Treasure Island, I wrote one about a lost island with treasure in it, that sort of thing. I wrote them on pieces of stray paper which my father then meticulously arranged, stapled together and filed away. He used to think, or at least I think he used to think, that I had a talent for the written word and like most things he said then, I blindly believed him. And so, by the time I entered my teens, my sole ambition in life was to become a novelist. So I kept writing this and that and found everyone who read them had good things to say. Everyone, until I became friends with this bespectacled guy in college who had a reputation for being a great lover of literature. So obviously I asked him to comment upon some of my stories. I remember vividly his words after he’d read a few. “There isn’t a doubt that you have a way with words. But really, all of this stuff you’ve written, what use is it? It means nothing. Honestly boy, don’t take it hard, but you’ve nothing to say.” I was shattered. I didn’t leave my room for days after that. I came to loathe myself, my father, the life I lived. Was it my fault that I was born into a regular family, a life where all my needs were fulfilled and grew up like everyone else did? Why wasn’t I born in a troubled society instead? During a revolution! How cruel is it to bestow upon a man a gift for something and then give him a life in which his hopes of using it are taken away! Anyway, after a few days, that boy came to see me in my room. I told him everything. How can I have anything to write about if nothing happens in my life! I asked him. “I do not have the answer to it,” he said, “but I can bring you books. Novels. Great works. And you can read them. And you can learn from them. And who knows, maybe one day you will discover something in your life worth describing, worth sharing with everyone else. “ So he began to bring me books. All kinds. Authors I’d never heard of. In the beginning, I found reading those terribly difficult. I’d throw away a book in disgust having read barely a page. And then, one day, he brought me Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I read it wide-eyed late into the night. And when I woke up the next morning, I found myself on a strange new bed and beside me lay Gregor Samsa as a vermin.”

I shall refrain from recounting details of my exclamations of disbelief and amazement beyond this point for they serve no purpose to the story.

“Yes, Gregor Samsa,” he continued, “I was petrified. I shrieked and jumped up from the bed. He continued to sleep undisturbed. Presently, the door opened and the story began. I realized none of the characters could see me. I was just there in the story and there was nothing I could do. Of course, I thought that I was dreaming and with the end of the story, I’d wake up and everything would be fine. But when I reached the end of the story, the strangest thing happened. I found myself suddenly transported on a boat traveling through a murky river. I didn’t know where I was until I began to listen to the conversations of the other five men on the boat and found one of them was called Marlow. Charles Marlow. And thus began Heart of Darkness. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Heart of Darkness ended and another novel began and so it went. I lived inside story after story for years, trapped and unable to get out. I saw Renaissance Europe – Michelangelo, Da Vinci, all of them and I saw the deplorable acts of sexual theatre in De Sade’s imagination. I fought against the Germans and then, in a different story, with them. One of my greatest experiences was when I lived through pretty much the history of the world at the side of Beauvoir’s immortal character of Fosca. So you see, I was trapped inside books for twenty five years. I do not expect anyone to believe it. But there it is. And then one day, I don’t know how, I woke up and found myself here. For a while I thought this too was a story. Who knows, perhaps it is. Anyway, here I am and my entire life has passed me by without my having lived it.”

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Short Story - Stories of Pain and Bliss

“And then one day, “said the Novelist, “I woke up and found myself gripped by an overwhelming fear of I knew not what.”

“Yeah?” I murmured, engrossed in the frantic, haphazard movements of the ant around which I had marked an imaginary boundary with my finger.

“Are you even listening to what I am saying?”

I sighed. It had been over an hour since the man had approached my table and asked if he could join me. His eyes were red and he looked so troubled and in need of some company that I had not the heart to refuse. And so he’d occupied the chair opposite mine, introduced himself as the writer of a dozen novels, out of which I’d heard the name of one or two and hadn’t read any, and begun to narrate a story which he said was the most bizarre and insisted was that of his own life. Through the next forty minutes, he recounted, in excruciating detail, his most trivial memories of growing up and writing. Twenty minutes into it, I was convinced that there wasn’t really a story at all. Whatever it was, however, wasn’t done yet and the only reason I hadn’t walked out on him yet was the beer mug in front of me and his offer to pay for it and as many others as I liked. I squashed the ant with my left thumb and looked up at him.

“You woke up gripped by a strange fear. Yeah, I am listening.”

He looked pleased.

“Yes, a very strange fear. In fact, I am not even sure if it actually was fear. More like anxiety, probably. Only, it wasn’t vague and less immediate as anxieties usually are. My heart beat violently and I could feel drops of perspiration emerge from behind each ear and trace their paths through my cheeks. When you are a writer, you tend to remember that sort of detail, I suppose.”

He paused as the waiter refilled our mugs. My eyes wandered to the other tables. On an adjacent table, another man, affluent of appearance, sat alone. His glass of whiskey looked untouched; the ashtray on his table was choked with cigarette butts. Perhaps sensing my gaze, he turned towards me and I realized how incredibly feeble the lights were, for I couldn’t make out his features. He fumbled inside his coat and found another cigarette. He struck a match, holding it between his thumb and middle finger, and it illuminated briefly, a wistful smile and the stump where his index finger had been. The Novelist was speaking again.

“At first I didn’t know what to do. I paced my apartment purposelessly. Everything looked in order. The girl I had spent the night with was gone; it was past noon. I went downstairs and read a newspaper at the café on the other side of the street. I spoke to two women on the next table. I don’t remember the conversation but it was genial. But when I returned to the apartment, that oppressing feat still remained. Anyway, I sat down to work on my novel, thinking it would take my mind off whatever it was that bothered me. I found the words come surprisingly easy to me, as I started to write. In no time, I had three paragraphs penned. I was thrilled. I made myself a coffee and returned to the table. As I glanced through what I’d written that morning, I had this odd feeling of having read it before. I re-read it a few times. Yes, definitely, I’d read it before. In fact, it occurred to me that I had actually written something like this before and unintentionally, I was repeating myself.”

I noted that the man at the other table had now turned towards us and was intently listening to the Novelist speak.

“So,” the Novelist continued, “I pulled out one of my earlier novels from the shelf – the one in which I thought I would find the paragraphs in question. I flipped through the pages and eventually found it.”

His voice had turned into an agitated hoarse whisper and his eyes shone. I surmised we were finally getting somewhere with the story.

“And guess what I found! Those same sentences, word for word, not a single punctuation out of place! The exact same thing! I couldn’t believe my eyes! ‘How is it possible’, I said to myself, ‘How can it be exactly the same!’ I read some of the earlier paragraphs from the book. And it began to dawn upon me. I went back to my unfinished manuscript. Sure enough! Those paragraphs were all there too! I was rewriting a book I’d already written! Word for word!”

The Novelist began to sob. I glanced at the man at the other table. I still couldn’t see his face in the darkness but I had a feeling he was smiling. Frankly, I wanted to burst into laughter too, so outrageous was the story.

“But…that has to be, I don’t know, how can that be true?” I asked.

“But it is! It is!” he wailed, “And it doesn’t end there. You know what I found after that? I opened one book after the other. And they were all the same! All the same! All those books I’d written, all of them, with their different covers and different names, they were all the same!”

At that moment, I couldn’t control it any longer and burst into laughter.

“Come on man! Surely, you don’t expect me to believe this!”

He looked at me with wide disbelieving eyes.

“Shut up, you dumb fuck!” he exploded, “Do you have any idea what it feels like? What it feels like to discover that everything you’ve written is the same thing? You laugh at me in my face, you moron! I went to every bookstore in the city that day! Every fucking bookstore! And I read every last damned copy of my books available in the city! And they were all the same!”

He became silent, breathing in and out in great gasps. I continued to stare at him, unable to find anything appropriate to say.

“I knew you wouldn’t believe it,” he said after a while, “so I brought these with me.”

He brought out a bunch of books from his bag, which I hadn’t noticed thus far, and placed them on the table. I instinctively noticed that they weren’t the same size. There were some that were far thicker than the rest. I picked one up. It was one of his. I opened it to the first chapter and read two paragraphs. Then I picked another.

It was true. They were all exactly the same book.

I found the Novelist staring straight at me. I realized, with a shock, that my own eyes had welled up.

“I am sorry,” was all I could manage. He remained silent.

“So what did you do after that? You abandoned the unfinished manuscript? Changed it?”

“No,” he said, his voice calm now, “I can’t.”


“Yes. Can’t. Each time I begin to write – a fresh chapter, another paragraph, anything at all, I find I cannot write anything other than what I have already written. I just cannot. I am doomed to writing the same story till I die. So I’ve stopped writing.”

“Well,” said someone and I looked up to find the man at the other table standing next to us. He was smoking another cigarette. “that is a most interesting story. I wish I could write it. But as you will soon see, I too cannot. Perhaps the young gentleman here will.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. He drew his chair from the other table and sat down at ours.

“You see, I am in the middle of, let me see, a somewhat similar situation.”

“What rubbish!” said the Novelist, “similar situation?”

“Yes, well, not exactly the same, mind you. Similar.”


“I am a novelist too, you see. But I only published one novel.”

“And that makes you similar how?”

“Let me finish,” the man said impatiently, “I said I only published only one novel. On the other hand, I have written close to fifty.”

The Novelist and I looked at each other, the exasperation clear on our faces.

“I wrote the first one,” he continued, “and at the end of it I realized how complete it was! How truly perfect! I couldn’t ever hope to write anything like it again. And why would I want to? So after it was published, I decided to not attempt anything else ever again. I wrote the same story again. Oh, the utter exhilaration of reliving one’s finest achievement! Every punctuation, every word! Mesmerizing! I didn’t waste a minute before starting to write it, a third time. And thus it has been, for more years than I care to remember now. So you see, our stories aren’t very different.”

We pondered this until the bar closed that night.