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.