Wednesday 25 October 2023

Short Story 2023 Longlist, Ananya Varadarajan

The Transaction

I was scrolling through first editions of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. A strange pastime for I knew very well that there was no way I could afford to pay those extravagant prices. I had barely started working and I didn't really have a lot of savings. I didn't even have a place of my own. Yet there I was, huddled in my comforter, fantasizing about owning a first edition that cost about $1788.06, hidden from my mother's disapproving looks.

I wondered idly how much it cost in rupees. I looked it up and winced-₹1,33,657.485. And then there were shipping charges to think of. Sighing , I logged out of the website and glanced up at the ceiling. I knew it wasn't remotely necessary but I couldn't help but wish that I could own a first edition. I had few interests besides books. There was nothing I could do however so I snuggled into my pillow and fell asleep.

I was sipping tea and rapping my forehead with my knuckles, wishing my head would stop feeling like it was being split open with a hammer. I was standing outside a tea stall with some of my colleagues. My headache left me with no desire for conversation so I chose to look around aimlessly than join in. I realized that I was being watched. A man of about my age, seated in a bus stop across the street, was staring at me unabashedly. He didn't seem remotely embarrassed at being caught and even held my gaze. His face was impassive. After a minute, he looked down into a black notebook that he was holding and scribbled furiously in it with a pencil.

I wasn't sure what to make of his behaviour. I watched him to see if he would look up at me again but he was engrossed in that notebook. I don't think I planned it but I found myself making my way across the street towards him. I came to a standstill in front of him. He looked up at me. It was evident that he wasn't surprised to see me. He gave me a small smile and said, "You owe me 10,000 rupees".

I stared at the man, blinking, unsure if I had heard him correctly. "Have we met before?" I asked feebly. He nodded. "I don't remember it and I'm guessing you don't either but the point is, you owe me 10,000 rupees". I was extremely annoyed with myself. He was either kidding around or actually insane. Giving him a dirty look, I turned around and began to walk away. He wasn't done talking though. He planted himself in front of me and handed me a visiting card. "You'll be needing this", he said. I tried to walk around him but he continued," You'll be spending around 1.5 lakhs for that first edition of Rebecca, some of it will of course go to your savings and I get 10,000. " I gaped at him as he picked up his things and boarded the bus that had just arrived. Before the bus left, he stuck his head out a window and said, "I know I'm four days late but happy birthday!".

My mother was still at work when I came home. I plopped myself on the couch, still lost in the thoughts of the afternoon. The phone rang and I got up reluctantly . I was greeted with a very gruff hello . "Dad?" I asked uncertainly. "Yes it's me", he said, rather awkwardly. I was stunned. My father and I didn't have a great relationship. My parents had had a brief affair years ago. I was born after my parents had gone their separate ways. I was raised solely by my mother for my father had migrated to the States. We had met a few times when I was younger but our contact had been minimal the last few years. "I just wanted your account details", he continued. "My account details?" "It's nothing much. I know I've missed a lot of your birthdays so I thought I'd give you a present. I didn't know what to get you. So I thought I'd gift you some money. How does ₹2,00,000 sound? It's a nice round sum don't you think? I know I'm four days late but happy birthday!"

"You're a psychic?", I asked him. "I'm a diviner. My clairvoyant skills are restricted to monetary matters. I make money by charging for my consultancy services. " "What did you mean when you said I owed you?" "Well, after looking at you I realized that our paths have crossed in a previous lifetime and that you owe me money"

It took me several meetings to really trust him but once I was there, he handed me some documents. One was a non-disclosure agreement and another was a contract of our financial agreement. I raised my eyebrows. "I like to keep things official," he said. I laughed derisively. He had his black notebook with him again. "What do you write in that?", I asked curiously. "Results of my divination. Details of the people I deal with." I nodded watching him scribble something else in his notebook. "You can ask your lawyer to take a look at those if you like" he said, gesturing at the documents. "Once you're done with them send them over to my lawyer". I nodded once again. Picking up his notebook, he hoisted himself from the chair and held out his hand. "It was nice doing business with you" he said. I took his hand wordlessly. Then, without a backward glance, he was gone.

"So?" I asked, drumming my fingers on the table. My friend was shaken out of his reverie. He looked at me and said," The financial contract seems alright. I don't think the NDA is legally enforceable though. I mean it was drafted under the trade secrets clause but as far as I know psychic abilities aren't listed under occupational activities in India." He smoothed the papers unnecessarily and then as if he could no longer contain himself, burst out saying, "How can you not find this insane?" This wasn't an unexpected question. I had asked myself this several times over the last few weeks. Yet, crazy as it was, I had come to accept that this was what was supposed to be happening. I merely shrugged at my friend. Inside my bag was a handsome goatskin bound book bearing a glossy legend in bold letters- ‘REBECCA’.