Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Aditya Gupta


It was on Samar’s loneliest night that Maya had first come to him.
It had been the worst Friday of his life. Eyes closed, he desperately tried to shut out the one line which kept haunting the chambers of his head.
“I’m leaving you.”

He tried to think of something else, anything. His work, the bed he was lying on right now, the movie he saw a few weeks ago, the people who lived across the floor, anything to distract his thoughts. But it was useless. In his mind’s eye he could only watch helplessly as once again, for perhaps the hundredth time, the scene reconstructed itself and started playing out like a spool of film.
It had been seven in the evening. He remembered it because the first thing he had caught sight of when he entered Peaberry Café was the familiar clock hanging on the wall opposite the door. It was a minute later that he saw Aruna observing him. He should have guessed it then. She hadn’t risen to welcome him. She hadn’t smiled. And she was sitting at a table which was as isolated a sitting place as one could manage to find in a café, hidden away at the back.

“Hey, Samar”, she finally said as he approached her.
“You’re early!” he said, shrugging off his heavy woolen jacket.
“So,” he lowered himself on the wooden chair, “You wanted to speak to me about something?”
She didn’t reply immediately. She kept looking away into the distance, apparently lost in thought. She then transferred her eyes to her cell phone clutched in her right hand. Finally, as if it took some doing, she looked directly at him. 

“Samar, I guess there’s no easy way to do it so I’ll just say it and be done with it”
He opened his mouth but she cut him short “I can’t be with you anymore.”
Yes, he thought now, maybe there was no easy way to say it after all.
His protests, his explanations, his promises were all in vain.
“Samar,” she sighed “How many times will you say the same things? How many times will you vow to quit smoking? And how many times will I keep giving you second chances?”

He couldn’t believe it. Deep down he had known it, seen this coming even. And he had known it would hurt terribly. But he still couldn’t believe that she was leaving him over something as inconsequential as that. So many people smoked. It was practically a religion amongst the employed. And there were so many people whose partners had made peace with it. But not Aruna.

In the beginning he had managed to pacify her with sincere-sounding promises to quit ‘The Death Stick’ forever followed by some well-timed flowers and dinners at her favourite joints. A few times he had even managed to go whole weeks without smoking. But the lure was too strong. The Gold Flakes called out to him. And, after all, how much could it hurt? Didn’t people inhale tons of smoke and other pollutants during their daily commute anyway?

But nothing would sway Aruna. She had an uncanny knack for knowing whenever he reneged on his promise. And lately every conversation of theirs seemed to degenerate into an argument. He guessed that the last straw had been her discovering last week through a mutual friend that not only had he not given up the habit but, in fact, he had increased it to about two packs a day. 
“I asked you to choose between smoking and me,” she said picking up her handbag, getting up to leave, “I can see which one you picked.”
She looked down at him for a second, her eyes locking into his, and uttered the three words which wrecked that Friday evening beyond repair.
“I’m leaving you.”       

Fast-forward four hours…five? He opened his eyes and tried to focus them on the alarm clock kept on the table opposite his bed. Nearly midnight.
Lying face down on the bed, he fumbled on the floor with his hand, searching. The moment his fingers made contact with the nearly-empty pack, he snatched it up and tipped the last cigarette from it onto his waiting palm. A flick of his lighter later he was lost in the comforting warm haze.
On his fourth or fifth drag he noticed it.
At first he dismissed it as a trick of light. But as his gaze returned to it after a minute, he was a little disconcerted to find that it hadn’t changed.

Right there, at the foot of his bed, the wisps of his smoke hung motionless in the air, as though frozen. But it wasn’t that alone which riveted his eyes, it was the way they had amassed themselves. He raised himself to a sitting position with an effort and stared at the shape in front of him.
A girl.
Almost unthinkingly he took another long pull and exhaled a little too vehemently in the direction of that strangely immobile haze, hoping it would be blown away into nothingness with the force of the air from his lungs.

But the shape only became clearer.
The new wisps seemed to weave themselves into the vision and again there was that eerie stillness.
Unmistakably a girl. Sitting at the foot of his bed.
He tried to make out the details but all he could discern was the form. Slender, petite with just the hint of long, way hair. He started to lean forward a little when the vision raised what seemed like a hand and uttered a single word.
He blacked out.

It was probably the combination of a-drink-and-drag too many, he assured himself repeatedly the next morning. And yet he was sure he hadn’t imagined it. And that voice which had called out his name. Even now, in the sobering light of the morning, he could recall its papery, whispery timbre.
He managed to stay cigarette-free till the evening, hoping that in some strange way that might help but by nightfall he could feel the cravings returning. And he was curious to see whether the thing would repeat itself. He took his position at the head of the bed and lit up.

This time it took just a few puffs to bring her into view. And a few more to bring out the details. He couldn’t help gazing at the smoky figure in fascinated wonder. His eyes travelled upwards from her slender legs, taking in the ceaselessly rippling folds of the dress she seemed to be wearing, to her grey arms ending in blurred fingers which she kept clasped together calmly at her knee. Finally, another pull later, her face acquired some semblance of form. He could make out a delicate chin, a pair of lips which seemed to curve upwards ever so slightly in a shadow of a smile, eyes which were closed at the moment and a small forehead around which swirled a mass of dark grey tresses, perpetually in motion, gently curling and uncurling.

Samar hesitated for a second and then stretched out a hand towards her. The moment his fingers reached her shoulder, two things happened – his fingers, encountering only air, realized she wasn’t solid and she opened her eyes.

He drew back sharply. For he was looking into two ovals of grey blankness, devoid of the usual pupils and irises. Hollow eyes. Empty eyes. And for the second time he heard that unusual voice.

His pulse quickened but he stayed conscious this time. His throat, dry with the smoke and the shock, managed to throw out the few words, “Wh…what are you?”
She tilted her head slightly to one side, as though considering her response.

“Someone who understands what you’re going through,” she eventually said.
“Is this some kind of dream?” he asked stupidly, painfully aware it wasn’t.
“No Samar, it’s real. I’ve come to you because I know how much you need me,” she replied and before he could contradict her, “Especially since the only girl whom you loved has left you.”
“How do you know about Aruna?” he asked, amazed.
Was that a laugh? It sounded like the whispering of wind.

“I know everything about you, Samar.”
“But where do you come from?! What is all this? Am I going mad?!”
“Why worry Samar? The important thing is that I’m here. To listen to you, to feel for you and to help you. I’m your friend. But there are two things which you must remember.”

“You must promise me that you’ll never tell anyone about me or I’ll go away forever.”
“And the second?”
“I can only come to see you once every day. So choose your time carefully. And next time,” she said, “Remember to have more cigarettes with you.”
With a shock he realized that the cigarette he was holding had reached its end and there were no others within immediate reach. He bounded off the bed and began rifling through the clutter, praying to find just one more cigarette.

But it was too late. Already her form had begun to blur.
“Wait, don’t go!” he called out wildly.
“Don’t worry Samar, I’ll be back tomorrow” she replied in a voice which had already become faint as the smoke started to free itself.
“What’s your name?!” he shouted, wondering whether she had one.
“Maya,” came the reply as the last spires of smoke dissipated into nothingness.

It was remarkable how quickly Maya became indispensable to Samar.
The very next night they talked again and he was surprised at how much Maya seemed to know about what he was thinking. She sympathized with him about the break-up, listened to all the happy moments he had spent with Aruna and knew exactly what to say at any given moment. From then on, not a night went by when he didn’t talk to her.
Samar had hardly any friends to speak of as he had always been a loner. And the one person he was close to had walked out of his life. Maya had stepped into this void so perfectly that he found, to his surprise, that he didn’t care about what she was or where she came from. 

As long as he could see her daily, he was happy.
There was one thing which piqued his curiosity though.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” he’d asked her one night, as he lay on his back, watching her.
“Nothing,” she’d replied, “They’re there but you can’t see them. Not now, at least. Maybe one day when…” she deliberately trailed off.
“When what?”

She moved closer to him until she was sitting right beside him, “When you’re ready to give everything you have.”
That was the only answer he could get from her.  She wouldn’t elaborate, preferring to change the topic instead.
As the days went by, his smoking levels increased. This had a double advantage – it helped him stay up longer at night which, in turn, gave him all the more time to talk to Maya.
With time he realized that she understood him better than even Aruna had. She seemed to enjoy an uncanny access to his thoughts which made her the perfect companion in his eyes – understanding, kind and patient.

It was a cold December night when he first voiced what he had been thinking for some time.
“Maya, is there any way you could become a real person? Someone flesh and blood? Alive and breathing?”
“Samar, how curious you should ask me that because I was just about to show you something!”
In response she came up to where he was sitting and lifted her hand. The next second she had laid it on his own.
Samar caught his breath. He could feel something.
It was extremely slight, hardly perceptible, but it was there – the gentlest pressure from her fingers.
He looked up and saw that she was smiling.

“How is this possible?” his voice came out in a whisper. “I couldn’t touch you before.”
“I know,” she replied, “And I think I also know why this is happening.”
Samar knew what she was going to say even before she had said it.
“You’ve fallen in love with me,” she said, “And that is why I’m becoming more and more real, day after day.”
“I have,” he said, straining to feel her barely-there touch, “But have you?”
She moved her hand and ran her fingers through his hair. It was like a soft breeze rustling through the million strands.
“Dear Samar, why do you think I came to you?” 

As his obsession with Maya grew stronger, the fabric of the rest of his life started fraying.
The longer their nightly chats, the later his sleepy-eyed arrival in office every day and the angrier the look from his manager. And then there was the nasty cough which didn’t let go of him. It had started out as the occasional irritation in his throat but had now grown into the typical Smoker’s Cough – a recurring, dry explosion of such sustained intensity that it left him shaking at the end of every bout. 
A few well-meaning colleagues tried to talk to him about the dangers of smoking only to be repulsed by a wall of jeering disdain. Work itself became an irritating exercise which he plodded through, his mind always straying to the evening when his hour of freedom would come and he could return to his beloved Maya.

It was only inevitable that, a couple of months later, he was politely asked to leave.
“That fat oaf thought I would beg him to let me keep my job,” he told Maya that night as he described the heated scene between his boss and himself, “But I told him he could keep his wretched job in his over-large coat pocket!”

“You did the perfect thing, Samar dearest. Why work for such a nasty old grouch? In fact,” she said as she laid her head on his shoulder, her hair cascading over his arm, “I think a break is just what you need. That way we can have all the time together.”
He gently took hold of her by the shoulder – she was gradually becoming more and more tangible – and faced her, his eyes searching the two grey opaque orbs in her face for a glimmer, a sparkle, anything.

“Maya, why do you still hide your eyes from me? Don’t you know how much I yearn for you every moment you’re away? When will you become truly real and be mine forever?”
Her answer was unexpected, “Soon, Samar. Very soon.”
As though guessing what he was going to ask she went on, “I can feel it happening. The metamorphosis, I mean. I sense that the time is near when I will be able to cross that invisible line which separates us and then, my darling, we can be together forever.”
And saying so, she leaned forward and enveloped him in her embrace.
As he drank in the scent of her hair – the same heady perfume which unfolded when you opened a fresh pack of cigarettes – he was suddenly seized by a severe fit of coughing. Maya let go of him as he tried to get up from the bed.

He’d just managed to catch his breath with difficulty when he first felt it – an eerie numbness stealing over the right side of his body, beginning from his right leg and slowly travelling upwards. His eyes widened in horror as he tried to move his right hand but found it unresponsive. In desperation he lurched his body in the direction of Maya.
She was looking at him, her hand clasped over her mouth in horror. He tried to call out her name but he could only manage a slurred “M…” Was she fading away? She seemed to be growing hazier. Why was the room whirling? What was happening to him? Why was he falling down, down, down…

“Another stroke brought on by aggressive smoking, when will these people learn?!” said the doctor, striding away in the direction of his office, “He should be thankful it was a minor stroke and not a hemorrhagic one or else he would’ve been a goner.”
“Thank goodness his maid found him in time and called an ambulance,” said the nurse, checking through the patient’s files.
“What about his parents? Have they been notified?”
“The maid reported that they passed away long ago. The emergency people called up the first name which came up on his phone’s contact list – a girl named Aruna. She’ll be here in an hour.”
“Good. Meanwhile he can enjoy a peaceful sleep.”

He spent three full days in the hospital and only after the doctor had done a thorough check-up was he allowed to go home. With a stern warning to stay away from smoking.
It was comforting to hear Aruna’s familiar remonstrance as she walked him from the car to his apartment. A couple of hours later she stood with her hands on her hips, smiling with quiet triumph, having restored some order and neatness to his living quarters.
“And these,” she said scooping up a bagful of unopened cigarette packs, “are going to the dustbin forever.”

He smiled and meekly agreed.
“Now take some rest and get better. I’ll be back this evening to check up on you,” she said as she tucked him in his bed in a maternal fashion.
He took her hand, “Can’t you stay?”
“Oh Samar I’d love to but I really must go. I haven’t met Kapil in…” she suddenly caught herself mid-sentence.
He only had to look into her eyes to understand everything. He let go of her hand.
“Kapil as in Kapil Shekhar?” he asked, his voice suddenly a shade colder, “Who used to follow you around in college?”
“Oh Samar, you mustn’t misjudge him! He’s actually really sweet and we’ve just been seeing each other for a few weeks,” she explained.

With an effort he mastered his emotions and smiled again, rather rigidly, “It’s okay, Aruna. You go ahead. I think I’ll take a nap. See you in the evening?”
“Definitely,” she replied, relieved that he had taken the news fairly well. Knowing him she wouldn’t have been surprised if he had burst into a rant against Kapil that very second.
“I’ll be back at six,” she promised as she gently shut the door on her way out.

He waited until he heard the sound of her car driving away before flinging aside the blanket in anger. With an effort he got up and stumbled towards the wardrobe. He opened a drawer and started groping around. Hidden away towards the back was what he was looking for, two unopened packs of Gold Flakes, his emergency cache.

It took a curiously long time for Maya to appear again. He had nearly finished one pack before her outline had again begun to appear. And he was halfway through the second one before she moved and spoke, “Samar! The time has come! I’m ready to cross over!”
He was beside himself with joy as he saw her, clearer than ever, standing on an imaginary threshold of being and non-being. Every detail was crystal clear for the first time. She had never looked so beautiful in all the time he had known her. Only her eyes…
“Will become visible the minute you finish the last one in the pack,” she said with a laugh, answering the question in his mind, “Go ahead, make me yours.”

He nodded feverishly as he lit up the second last one. He had resumed coughing the minute he had taken a drag from the very first cigarette. By now he had also begun sweating profusely but he didn’t notice it. And the curious blank feeling which had started creeping up in his head was dismissed by him as the result of all those medicines which the doctors had forced on him.

So Aruna had chosen Kapil, had she? Well he, Samar, would show her. He would show everyone! When the world would see his lovely Maya, no one would have eyes for any other woman. How could they? For his Maya would become the epitome of grace and beauty. 
As the very last Gold Flake ignited, Maya stepped closer to Samar.

“Just this last one,” she whispered seductively, “and it will all be over.”
“Yes, then these visits of yours will be a thing of the past. You’ll be here. In the real world. With me.”
She didn’t answer. Her attention was riveted on the thin, glowing orange band which was slowly inching upwards the cigarette. 
As the Gold Flake reached the end of its life, Samar closed his eyes, took a long drag and, swaying slightly, tossed away the lifeless butt. He savored the sensation for a moment, then exhaled and opened his eyes.
Two spheres of light, glowing fiercely like the embers of a dying cigarette, met his eyes.
He was paralyzed with shock as he realized what he was looking at. Maya’s eyes.

And what had happened to her? For there stood before him, not the girl he had given her heart to, but a terrifying apparition – a billowing figure of black smoke, burning eyes and a beauty which was terrible to behold. He could only watch helplessly as she cupped his chin in spindly, claw-like hands and started to draw his face up to hers.

“Didn’t I tell you, Samar, that you’d be able to see my eyes when you’ve given me everything you have?” she said in a scratchy, raspy voice that filled him with horror.
“Well, you finally did just that,” she said and kissed him on the lips.

His eyed widened in terror as he felt something being sucked out of his body. He tried to move his hands and legs but in vain. He managed to look down and saw that his body was wrapped in a web of black smoke which had coiled itself around him and was slowly tightening, driving out the breath from his lungs. He looked up, fighting to get some air inside him, and the last thing he saw was the pair of glowing orbs – fiery, fathomless, deadly.

Aruna discovered the body when she returned in the evening.
The doctors attributed the incident to another stroke – a fatal one this time.
It was only later that night when Aruna, after having been comforted by her parents, settled down to sleep did she remember a curious detail – when she had discovered the body she couldn’t help but notice that the cigarette smoke hadn’t dissipated. At that time she had attributed it to the closed room and the cold weather.
But now, as she recalled the scene, she remembered that the spires had been suspended in a rather strange way.
It must have been a trick of the light, she thought.
Because for a second it had seemed that the wisps had collected to form a shape.

That of a girl.

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