Tag Archive: Short Story


Fragment Of A Dream – II

Baba (my father) and I were in Dhaka, attending a wedding. I don’t know if it was of a relative or a friend; maybe it was of someone we didn’t even know. One doesn’t ask these questions in a dream – because they never get answered.

The building which served as both the wedding venue and the guest house for out-of-towners was huge, almost a castle. Built out of grey stone blocks, it had hundreds of high-ceilinged rooms and miles of labyrinthine corridors. It was not long before I realised that it also served as the headquarters for the local secret police. So, the room next to the bride’s boudoir might very well have a girl hanging by her wrists, naked, from the crossbeams. Or the banquet hall might overlook a chamber where an old man would have his fingernails ripped off and salt (no doubt borrowed from the caterer) gently smeared on the red, raw fingertips by smiling men in sweat-stained uniforms. I also met these men in the corridors, hurrying past with a preoccupied expression on their faces; they never talked. Nor did I.

The house started to suffocate me; the windowpanes were dirty and no sun would come in. the gloom made me restless. Baba and I decided to go out and see the city. We were assigned a guide, one of those nondescript relatives one encounters only at family reunions. He looked a bit like an old photograph of the writer Humayun Ahmed. He was timid and friendly, and eager to show us around. He had an accent that reminded me of stormy nights of my childhood when my cousin and I would curl up in our grandmother’s lap and listen to stories from her teenage in a Bangladesh village (of course, it was India then), all the time watching flashes of lightning filter in through the shutters of the North Calcutta house where she lived with her sons, my mother’s brothers.

This man (I never got to know his name) asked us if we had any specific destination in mind. We were at a bus stop; I had a backpack with my camera, water-bottle, and other knick-knacks in it. Baba had his omnipresent Shantiniketan bag slung over one shoulder.

“Is there a zoo here?” I asked.

“Yes, sir! A very nice one, too. Wait, there’s a bus that goes directly to it.”

A bus came. It looked surprisingly like an Amsterdam tram. Only the doors were open and people were hanging from it. I could never take Baba on this crowded contraption.

“It’s okay, that’s not our bus,” our guide said.

Another one came; this one was reassuringly like a Calcutta bus, with a battered tin body painted blue and yellow lettering on the side. It was equally sardined with people.

“This is it.”

“I’m sorry, I cannot take my father on this bus. How far is the zoo?”

“Oh, just about two stops from here.”

“Then we’ll walk.”

“You’re sure?” (to my father) “You, sir?”

“If my son says we walk, we walk,” Baba said with a smile.

“But the sun is too strong, and…”

“Then we shall walk in the shade,” I said. He didn’t get the joke (not that I expected him to).

We started walking. The streets were wide but without pavements, so we tried to remain as close to the buildings as possible. The traffic was curiously sparse, though, consisting mostly of cycle-rickshaws, and the occasional bus.

After a while, we decided to stop for a cup of tea at a roadside stall. I unstrapped my backpack and relaxed on a weather-beaten wooden bench. The tea came in thumb-smeared glasses, festooned with flies (on the house, I thought, amused). It was as all roadside teas are – stale, bitter, grainy on the tongue. Baba was even more finicky about his tea than me, but he seemed to enjoy it.

Ten minutes. We resumed walking. After a couple of blocks, I suddenly realised I felt lighter.

“Baba…”

“What?”

“I think I’ve left my backpack at the tea stall.”

“Ufff, you’re so scatterbrained! Run back and get it.”

“Shall I go with you, sir?”

“No; you stay here with Baba. I won’t take a minute.”

As I started running back towards the stall, it took me a few seconds to realise that the streets have changed. We did not walk these streets before; but now they were the only ones I could take. They were narrow, shadowy, deserted. Cold.

I came out in a broad avenue; a long shamiyana (like in old Bengali banquets) covered the entire stretch of it on my side. A feast must have ended just now; the ground was littered with plates made of sal leaves, rice grains, broken earthen cups, fish bones and splashes of curry. I kept on running, still under the shamiyana, bordered on both sides with rows of those long folding tables with laminated tops that can seat six at a time.

As I ran, I became aware of other people joining me from both sides. I looked back, and almost screamed. They were a ragtag group of brown, skinny men mostly in tattered lungis or pajamas, bare-bodied; and none of them were complete. One had a hole where his nose should be, another had stumps for arms, while a third had ears and lips missing. What they all had were two working legs, and they kept up with me effortlessly, all the while smiling the rictus grin of the freak.

“Lepers,” I thought. “I’m running with lepers.”

The shamiyana went on, endless, featureless, shadowed, mirroring the corridors of the house where we were staying. The lepers were on all sides of me now. Two of them were on my left; they were looking at my Fabindia kurta. One said to the other, “Expensive stuff, eh?” The other smiled and said, “Would look good on my wife.” I wanted to scream at them, beg them not to kill me, that I’d give them the kurta if they promised to spare my life, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak. Suddenly, I realised that it was my destiny, that I would never get my backpack, that I would never see Baba again, that I had to run like this, run with these lepers, these fleet-footed hounds of diseased defiance, run, run, run till all my blood would erupt from my mouth, and keep on running even then.

 

 

 

 

 

[An actual dream I had on the morning of 10th January 2011, with a little embellishment for dramatic purpose]

Fragment Of A Dream – I

I walked noiselessly down the dark hallway. To my left was a wall made entirely out of panes of frosted glass that were letting in the evening gloom. To my front and right were doors, all open, all leading into darkened rooms – all save one. The room directly up ahead had a little glow coming out of it. As I reached the door, I saw that the source of the glow was a small fluorescent reading lamp resting on a table. I poked my head through the doorway and looked around. A second lamp was burning on a similar table at the far end of the room. Either the occupants had left in a hurry, or someone was here just now. I turned around, retraced my steps down the hallway and stopped at the first door (now to my left). It was open. I could hear breathing in the pitch-black room, and then something like a smothered whimper. Realising that I must be silhouetted clearly against the milky frosted glass and would have been shot by now if the occupant of the room had wanted it, I raised my left hand and said, “Can you see me? Please step forward very slowly – and don’t try anything rash, I’m armed.” Almost instantaneously my wrist was clutched by two soft hands and the woman stumbled forward, not bothering to stifle her sobs anymore. She was about 25, with chestnut hair cut short, and wearing a dark business suit. She clung to the lapels of my raincoat, shaking and crying.

“What happened?” I asked softly.

“I-I don’t know. They were he-here, just ten minutes b-before closing time. I don’t know why, but I hi-hid behind the table with th-the big printer. They shot ev-everyone, and dragged them o-out. I wouldn’t dare m-move…”

I looked down at the gleaming white floor. It was spotless.

“How many did they shoot?”

“About eight in th-this room. There were t-twenty in all, this being a S-Saturday.”

I hadn’t seen any bodies in the front office or in the hallway, nor could I discern any bloodstains on the floor.

“How did they carry them out? In body bags?”

“No, just d-dragged them away by th-the legs. I must have fainted, I d-didn’t hear them leave. Oh g-god, I’m scared…”

I helped her walk to the reception area, made her sit down on the visitors’ couch and poured her a cup of water from the cooler in the adjoining room. As she sipped from it, her breathing became more normal. Presently, she spoke again.

“I think I should go home now.”

This was good news for me. She was not of much use as a witness, and I could now search the rooms without having to babysit her.

“You do that, Miss… er…?”

“Kyle. Lisane Kyle.”

“Miss Kyle. I’m sure you’ll be alright.”

As she exited from the office apartment and walked towards the elevators, I watched her pensively from the front door. Something in her walk was not right; as if she was dying to break into a run, but couldn’t for the fear of arousing suspicion. As the elevator doors thudded shut, I turned my back and went inside.

I walked towards the streetwise side of the apartment and looked down. In about three minutes, she came out onto the snow-smeared sidewalk, and looked up. Her gaze was not visible from eight stories up, but something in the hunch of her shoulders was not right, just like her walk a while back. I decided to follow her.

As I stood in the elevator, I checked my pockets for a weapon. All I could find was a penknife. The street was deserted when I came out and I could see her in the distance, walking fast, dark against the snowy backdrop. I followed her at a normal walking pace along the left sidewalk. After about 200 metres, the streets split. To our front, there was a big avenue running at right angles to the street we were on, and to our right, a small lane jutting out at an angle of about 20 degrees (to the near side) and ending in a cul-de-sac. She was running by now, and it was this lane she took at top speed, crossing the street in a blind panic, her long Manara legs kicking up dirty snow. Fortunately for her, there was no traffic. As I crossed the street and reached the first house on the lane and looked around the corner, I saw her standing unsteadily at the cul-de-sac. Presently she turned back and started running again. I crossed the street and came back to my old position, ready to intercept her. She came into view at full tilt, her crop of hair obscuring her face yet letting the stark panic there show through. As I ran towards her, I was surprised to see she didn’t even care to look around. She hit the big avenue, spattering dead snow at every footfall. I let her have a 5-second lead, and then turned the corner. And skidded to a halt. She was not running anymore.

I pulled myself back into an arched doorway and watched her. She was standing under a battered ‘Bus Stop’ sign, shivering. Just at that moment, a black car pulled up alongside her. So she was running not for the fear of being followed, but that of being late for her appointment. And the aimless detour at the cul-de-sac must have been a ruse to shake off any pursuer (and instructed by the people she was meeting, indubitably).

The back window on the passenger side rolled down, and I could see a gloved hand resting on top of the pane. She was talking to the occupant of that hand, talking fast, and pointing wildly in the general direction of the apartment where I was supposed to be right now. The window rolled up, the car took a U-turn and drove off towards the building we were in not ten minutes ago. She stood there. I walked up noiselessly and grabbed her by the arm.

“Alright,” I said, “I want some answers. Who are they and why are they going to the apartment right now?”

She looked at me with dark, frightened eyes. She was trembling again. “I-I’m cold.”

“Let’s go for coffee. I know a good place one block west from here. There you can sit and tell me all about it.”

 

 

 

 

 

[An actual dream I had on the afternoon of 8th September 2010, with a little embellishment for dramatic purpose]

Last May, my right shoe ate a sharp pebble, and gave me a memento in the form of a scar under my big toe.

Last May, I killed my dreams by eating them. It wasn’t a very easy process, but was urgent, as they had started to become a lot more uncomfortable than the pebble in my shoe.

It was an enchanted, enchanting May: the sun caressed the skin in a way that made one feel as if the whole body was being gently rubbed with sandpaper soaked in acid. The wind was slow and heavy, like a woman who’s become miraculously pregnant after menopause. The people were sweet, for they were afraid of being nasty; everybody’s temper was on a fuse burnt away by the sun to a short stub.

It was then that I met her: my muse, my destiny, my sweet witch. My executioner.

I remember the evening; it was shamelessly golden and cool, like a cliché dragged out of countless romantic novels that give prepubescent girls their first flush of erotic excitement. The place was…… I’d better not name it, for it was startlingly unromantic. But when I saw her, the background just underwent a blurring mechanism that the Adobe experts would have envied. Only she was there. Only her. Only.

I walked up to her and stood there, speechless. Of course, I could have uttered a banal phrase like “I’ve always dreamt about you”, but I couldn’t; with the consumption of my dreams, all the words and expressions related to them had been erased completely from my inner vocabulary. I only managed to smile; weakly, and keeping in mind the place where I was. Fraction of an inch increases the smile, and the moral guardians of the universe would swoop down on me in a body and tear me from limb to limb.

The smile worked; she smiled back. Not with her lips, though. But her eyes, like pools of liquid amber, just took on that extra sparkle that only some women (and no men) could radiate when they’re genuinely happy, or genuinely amused. I wasn’t in the state of mind to know or care which; besides, with my dreams eradicated, there was no reference to fall back on. I was a child, my mind a cleaned palimpsest, ready for new experiences and realizations to embed themselves in it, in varying degrees of depth depending on their importance.

The next few hours were embarrassingly good; we were “meeting cute”, as self-proclaimed ‘smart’ people would have said. A corner table in a glass-fronted place that sold coffee and coloured drinks in sweating glasses proved to be more congenial to our conversation than we had hoped. I surreptitiously made her sit in a way that the setting sun would light up her face in just the angle I’d like. Playing around with her, you might think. No, it was just a set of cosmic coincidences – not to mention a star residing ninety million miles away suddenly deciding to become benign and caring. I was rebuilding my dream-library, but only with good ones this time.

And we talked. Did I say “we”? I talked. She didn’t. She didn’t need to. Her eyes did all the talking, the brown fire in them changing intensity and hue in accordance with my rambling monologues. It was a strange conversation, with my words and her gazes dueling in a soft shuffle, embracing, uncoiling, jousting, kissing, and all the while keeping away, like the isolated points of the masts of a ship sunken in shallow waters; joined within, aloof without. The subjects of our exchanges – my rants – were varied and trivial: pop culture had always been my forte, and in its slime I wallowed like a housebroken pig, snorting in self-centred satisfaction. She played along, occasionally creasing her moist Rubenesque lips in a nudge of encouragement. Encouragement always nourishes me in small doses; she knew this, and kept the phial tightly shut, handing out pinches of the same like a miser who’s suddenly realized she cannot ever be happy by not being a miser anymore. The sun lowered itself gently in the enclosed green fields behind the whitewashed monstrosities huddling across the street; harsh fluorescent lights suddenly exposed her face from the other, unprepared, angle. The effect on me was that of a soporific gone bad. Still, she was there, her corporeal existence pressing down on my heart and capillaries with a longing so great that I feared imminent aneurysm.

The evening dragged on, the sky turning into a bluish-black ichor that only manifests itself so well in a tropical city: the unfiltered smoke from thousands of ramshackle vehicles playing catch-me-if-you-can with the corpuscles of a dying light. She looked bright, happy, and slightly distant. I was throbbing with a pleasant ache that was slowly paralyzing me from the chest down; only my mouth and my hands remained animated, but not in the purpose I had envisioned for them in the silent moments before dawn when I laid awake in my bed, in the company of pillows, sweat and primitive flashes of self-enlightenment. Suddenly I stopped; she had asked something, and I hadn’t managed to catch it as my flood of words had swept her small query away in a mighty fury. She understood, and repeated herself. This time I caught it; “What are your dreams?” she was asking.

What are my dreams, Princess? After so much of pain, so much of walking barefoot on jagged rocks (when my shoes failed to protect me from a mere pebble, I discarded them like leprous parents), so much of thinking and envisioning your face, your lips, your long fingers with their cool tips, your wavy hair tied up in a careless bun, I had no dreams anymore; I had swallowed them like an ogre swallows children who believe in him. All I had now were binary speculations. Black or white, short or tall, thin or fat, sad or happy, loving or spiteful. Dead and alive. I’d consciously cleaned my psyche of the grey areas, for it is from there that the dreams arose every night to invade my peaceful narcissism. But how could I put this forward to her? Would she understand, or would she behave like countless people have done before her? I couldn’t answer her; not then, not with so much at stake. All I managed was a mumbling non-answer, a gibberish of well-practiced social masquerade. She understood that she shouldn’t understand, and turned quieter. A nod to the proprietor of the place for the bill; “I must go now,” she said, the amber pools avoiding my surprised eyes. She was confused; I was embarrassed; the bill had been paid. We walked out, in the half-warm breeze.

Me, in what I thought to be my self-absorbed magnanimity, offered her a walk to the not-nearest bus stop. She, with her infinite patience, acquiesced. The dwarf of an ego that resides in a wet, mossy corner of my mind swelled with pride, and limped forward into my eyes to look afresh at this creature who so readily accepted my whims.

The walk was just as I had hoped it to be: silent, soft, oblivious of the surroundings. We were wrapped up in our cocoon of freshly-spun familiarity, and it was cutting through the crowd like a dolphin gliding through the oily waters of a ship-strewn sea. I was too happy to indulge in my usual game of dodging people without touching them whenever I’m walking down the busy pavements of that neighbourhood (yes, it will go unnamed; no revelation for you at the end of this story, dear reader), and was busy stealing sidelong glances at her staccato profile etched out of time-sharpened quartz. When she lifted them to scoop up a handful of unruly locks from the nape of her graceful neck, the easy sinewy movement of her arms was accentuated to an ecstatic level by the thin white fabric of her innocently sleeveless top. The easy curve of her back toward the gentle swell of the derrière was embossed into the pattern of her hand-printed cotton skirt by a Creator who still goes unnamed in the dusty corridors of Babylon.

The view changed; we kept on walking. From the illuminated billboards and thumb-smeared glass windows displaying stuffed corpses of consumerism, to the brick-strewn playgrounds and dust-greyed shrubbery of a neighbourhood that didn’t believe in itself anymore. Has it, like me, eaten its dreams in a futile attempt to escape into a better life? Such cannibalism shouldn’t be rampant, or else the half-digested dreams might unite to form a shadow-republic of their own. No, those thoughts didn’t cross my mind then; I was too busy soaking up every last sweat-drop on her gleaming shoulder with my thirsty eyes to philosophize like a Byzantine priest. But now when I recall those scenes, the lines dissolve into blurs, and what lie between them come forward like resolute Bogatyrs on their stony steeds.

Finally, our destination: a confluence of four roads chasing themselves in a vicious circle around a grassy patch lying in wait like a predator of existence gone stale. Automobile drivers jostled for every inch; their colleagues jostled for every potential passenger. She stood there, in the orange lamplight, purity blemishing itself merrily amidst all that commonness. My query on any chance of a future meeting went unanswered; was she suppressing tears? I hope not. Let’s not end this tryst with regret, my Sheba. I give you freedom from the bonds of my all-consuming love that is more hateful than hatred itself. But like a lightning flash, I knew what I had to do at the instant she was boarding her conveyance. I waved my arms as magic dredged from the bowels of Palaeolithic eternity surged through my fingers.

And the world stopped.

All the transportation, the people, the stars in the sky, the languid noxious all-pervading smoke simply froze into their very position. The impotent middle-aged men craning their necks to catch a glimpse of my Ayesha, the ugly middle-aged women hating her ethereality, the mindless zombie children rushing from one lesson to another – all of them sucked in their latest breath and kept it in their worthless lungs for as long as I commanded. Even she stopped; she, who had absolute power over my heart and soul, had none over my black magic.

And then I started folding the scene in front of me from the northwest corner (for simplicity, I imagined it to be a stereoscopic rectangle; I advise you strongly to do the same, lest you go blind). I folded it neatly, triangle after triangle doubling up on their predecessors, until I had in front of me a multi-tiered pastry of metal, stone, oil and flesh. And then I started pounding it into a lump. For I had decided what ought to be my duty now: to create and eat my last dream pebble that had her at the core, like a guileless pearl in the bosom of a textured oyster. I performed this last task with a lone tear trickling down my cheek. “Now we shall not part again, my Queen,” I said; “I won’t have to face the tumultuous ignominy of rejection that will hit me like a tonne of barbed-wire bricks six months from now,” I intoned solemnly as I felt the pebble making its way slowly down my gullet.

I don’t dream anymore. For she is with me now, as was destined to be. What walks this earth is her shell; the ‘she’ of her is safe in my heart forever. My last dream pebble, which I built with the help of my Empress.

No, I don’t dream anymore. And I still walk barefoot. But this time, I don’t walk alone.

 

 

 

 

(October 2007)