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.”