The Story

— Trusha Navalkar

I haven’t told this Story to anyone before. So, please find yourself grappling with the responsibility of the burden of this admission. I’m choosing you for no fault of yours. You just happen to be available for the narration of this Story, just like I was for another one. You see, I’m just doing to you what was done to me without my consent, nay without my knowledge altogether.

While you can’t help but continue reading, do find yourself free to react any which way you want: with irritation, annoyance, impatience, exasperation…whatever. I’d in fact advise you to soak in the unpleasantness of this moment, for I was denied even this luxury. You’ll understand soon enough as to why.

Now that we have established the basic premise of my helplessness, I think we can move on to the Story.

Like most good people, my tendency to sympathise with the underdog is what left me rabid after a particularly vicious bite. The Incident happened on an otherwise busy pathway of one of the busiest glass-walled ‘market-cities’ of this metropolis. That on the day of my humiliation the corridor was unusually isolated, with just a few lazy dumbasses idling around on a weekday afternoon, made the perfect setting for my figurative de-robing. At the risk of giving away the climax too soon, I’ll just hastily add literally as well to that detail. Wait, I haven’t yet started narrating the Story to you, have I? Sorry I tend to deviate frequently, all my friends complain.

Aah. Bear with me dear friend, if I can count you as one (the Incident has left me quite wary of people), I’d have to take a slight detour to establish the context of this narration. Yes, yes, don’t worry; I shall get to the Story soon.

What was I doing at an urban mall, you ask? I’m not ashamed to say I’m quite materialistic for a self-proclaimed writer, the starving artist image notwithstanding. What about my social responsibility, did you say? I choose not to be a crisis-ridden-Third-World-expert cum activist-writer who conveniently glosses over the irony of churning out draft after draft of the next Pulitzer-winning manuscript bathed in the blue light of the latest Word Processor. I am of the much-despised pulp campus-novel writing kind. Please do not call me a sell-out.

Moving on, I sensed green movement on my left. It alarmed me enough to want to turn and ascertain its actor. He was dressed in a dark turquoise-green chequered shirt, perfectly camouflaging him against the trees. It took me more than a second to realise this, and I believe that’s how he chose his victim. I possibly invited him and his weapon of choice (a pen) by looking at him like girls supposedly invite rapists and their weapon of choice.

It was too late though, he was already walking towards me with a bunch of what looked like home-printed manuscripts. This is how the Story made its suspicious entrance, ensconced with care under his arms. He seemed old-ish (I’d peg him in his fifties, or maybe even early sixties) with a slight stoop and the classic joker-hairdo of a bald centre and bushy sides covering his ears.

Out of respect (or maybe just my Libran niceness), I ‘entertained’ his approach. “Excuse me, would you like to read a story by a writer, a popular best selling one?” he said looking me straight in the eye and handing out a sheaf. I instantaneously lowered my eyes and raised my hand to motion ‘no’ like one would to a persistent auto-rickshaw wallah. “No, thank you,” I said as politely as I could, at once feeling guilt pangs. I have a hard time saying no to people.

I walked away immediately, suppressing even the urge to ask directions to a book café that earned rave reviews on Zomato. For all your accusations of selling out, I do do some typical writerly things, too. And what kind of vegetable is Zomato, you ask? It’s a restaurant search app hugely popular in the countries of the Third World. Yes, we aren’t all like what some Pulitzer/Booker winning writers would have you believe, or for that matter British film directors enamoured by a wildly imagined book on a rags-to-riches story set in the unforgiving slums of a Third World country.

I spent two hours in that coffee shop trying to devour its collection of dog-eared, yellowing and delicious smelling old books. However, it became devilishly difficult to concentrate. I would read the same lines again and again, not registering a single sentence because I couldn’t shake off the vision of the old man and his hopeful expression as he handed out his manuscript.

I idly wondered if he meant himself when he spoke of the popular, best-selling writer. If yes, why didn’t he seem familiar? I know that a writer’s impact is more cerebral, unlike an actor’s that is more graphic. But, writing in this age has finally become cool and writers have become quite the superstars, selling rights to have their novels shredded until unrecognisable to appease juvenile mass cinematic sensibilities. I wondered what brought him to this state where he’d have to manually hand out his manuscripts to random strangers he came across. Or was it just a habitual practice, a more reliable way of gaining feedback from the potential reader unlike well-meaning acquaintances who don’t realise that ‘good’ is not a flattering compliment but a painfully inadequate critique? Perhaps he was doing it for a dear one. But what kind of relation could make an old man expose himself to rejection from indifferent strangers? All these idle musings just served to further grate the guilt-sized cyst in my belly. It felt physically painful.

I ventured back to the bench, waiting for him to make an appearance again as he completed the full circle of the neo-modern architecture. And sure enough, he did. I felt pity for him as yet another person shook his head and walked away. Despite my hammering heart, I walked up to him and patted him on the shoulder. A look of surprise registered on his face.

It was now sadly absent of the hope that earlier shone in his eyes. I think he may have been trying to suppress a twinge of resentment while he struggled to put up a neutral face. I smiled at his collection. He asked me if I’d changed my mind, once again his piercing gaze boring into mine. I inwardly flinched, but put up a confident front and muttered an excuse of suddenly having some time to while away.

I was quite taken in by the gaze of the old man. I remember looking into his eyes for a long time, like a lover would. I at once felt a deep trust in him. My head had begun to throb; that should have been warning enough. But, his smile was so inviting, I found myself opening up to him. I was still talking as I flipped through the pages, trying to speed read, hoping to find something interesting I could compliment him on. I told him I was a writer myself, that I hoped to become a best-selling one someday like him, that the reason I had time was because my girlfriend stood me up at the last minute, that’s how much I loved her…

That, honestly, I was still sticking around at my job because it paid well and I wasn’t ready to give up its hollow luxuries, that it paid me in lakhs per month, that I was now a proud owner of a premium platinum MasterCard, that it took care of all my lavish expenses including the branded Allen Solly shirt I’d been wearing, that the pass code of the card was 2301…

Yes, I told him all that, and more. You must think me to be extremely foolish. It’s ok, I understand. The policeman filled in the rest of the embarrassing details for me. All the details that I’d no recollection of; details like how I willingly removed my Allen Solly shirt and gifted it to him, like how I loosened my belt and exposed the world to my (thankfully clean) boxers, like how I wasn’t the only one who lost possession of a gold engagement ring or two…

How did he have such a hold on me, you ask? If you’ve been reading the newspapers regularly, unlike me, you’ll instantly make the connection. For those who can’t, I’ll spell it out: H-Y-P-N-O-S-I-S. Sigh, I guess the Third World is still not immune to desperate survival-crimes; I was weirdly impressed by the sophistication though.

Yes, you are allowed to be freaking paranoid every time a stranger approaches you on the street. Yes, I regret being a nice person now. Yes, I’ve begun to understand the perks of saying no. Yes, my girlfriend is pissed that I don’t look into her eyes lovingly anymore. Yes, this Incident has made me extremely hesitant of looking into people’s eyes while talking. Yes, I know that makes me seem shyer. Yes, I apologise for doing this to you. Yes…

What did you say? What about the Story? Well. You just read it. What? You say you are confused? Let me explain. It took me a while to get my hands on the manuscripts as they were bound in cellophane and kept out of reach, being evidence in the investigation—and what a crucial evidence they proved to be. I felt like an idiot for not going through the manuscript more thoroughly while I stood holding it, trying to ease the tension with the old man. I read in part awe and part humiliation as I came across prosaic accounts of experiences similar to mine. They were all there, each of his victims and their stupidities, described in a sadistically content tone. To me, he read like a relatively harmless psychopath who committed such crimes as much for a laugh and inspiration for his stories as for fulfilling criminal impulses or diminishing bank balances. I felt like smacking myself on the head when I came across a mention of an Allen Solly shirt; he sounded especially smug about that one. I had already found my way into one of his manuscripts. I felt vaguely relieved that he wasn’t able to cultivate another victim before the police caught up with him. At least my dignity didn’t get shred to bits. So, you understand me when I say I don’t want you to narrate this Story to anyone else?

I say this as much to preserve your dignity as mine. You see, you’d run the risk of seeming as foolish as me if you narrated this Story. You don’t understand? Would you agree with me when I say that the eternally old art of storytelling is the most effective practice of hypnosis? Ah, I can see you’ve begun to understand now…

 


 

I am a 22-year-old media student from India. A voracious information seeker, I, not unlike others my age, spend unhealthy amounts of time on the Internet. I simply eat, breathe, sleep and live Communication with a capital C and like to dabble in all kinds of media. Writing is a hobby I picked up early when I realised one doesn’t necessarily need a mystery to craft a story, a la Enid Blyton.

I have previously been published in The Bombay Review Anthology.