Lounge Fiction Special: ‘A strange story’ by Vivek Shanbhag


Secluded in Shillong, an author on a writing retreat plays host to an unexpected guest who tells him a tall tale



Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur.

From time to time, I escape to faraway places to work on my novels and short stories. The pretext of writing enables the solitude that is so essential for living. I certainly don’t suffer from the delusion that the mind is creative only when freed from the routines of everyday life. Even so I am always happy to accept when friends invite me to visit their part of the country.

Once I am under their obligation, I feel reluctant to challenge their beliefs about writing. They think rivers, mountains, greenery, sunrises and so on are inspiring to a writer. When they show me such sights and say, “Ah! Think of how much writing you could get done with a view like this,” I simply nod.

This time it was a friend who worked in the survey department in Shillong. He lured me by saying he was due to retire soon and could make good arrangements for my stay if I visited while he was still there. I went.

In that already beautiful city, my friend had found me a place ringed by hills. It was the outhouse of an old couple’s residence. They lived in the middle of a large compound with no other houses nearby. The three-roomed quarters at the back of the compound were mine: a well-equipped kitchen, neat bedroom, and a tiny hall.

My first two days coincided with the weekend, and my friend showed me around the city. Then, as if asking me to get down to business, he said, “Now there’s no one to trouble you. You can get on with your writing. I’m going to be away for eight days, but just call if you need anything. I’ll arrange it.” He got into his jeep and left. I went to sleep thinking about how to use the next three weeks there.

No one visited me except the man my friend had appointed to deliver my meals. The old couple refused all conversation beyond the “Good morning” that accompanied the newspaper they brought me every morning. I couldn’t help imagine what might be going on behind the thin curtains hanging at their windows. The area around their house was pristine. A maid came during the day and I had seen her diligently wipe the window grille. I thought I must ask my friend when he returned if they had children, and if so, where they lived. It didn’t feel like there was much talking going on inside their house. The house was like a tomb in which I imagined the two of them walking around slowly, noiselessly.

This was the state of affairs when, on my fifth day, a man came to see me. The old couple told me, at around 11 in the morning, that someone was looking for me. I was taken aback. I knew no one in that city other than my friend. He must have sent someone, I thought.

They had made him wait at the gate. He was of medium height, well-built, bespectacled. Maybe around 45. He was wearing a brown sweater, its front patterned with vines of tiny white flowers. I approached the gate and was further taken aback when he addressed me in Kannada: “My namaskara to Chandrashekhar.” He laughed in delight at my confusion.

He explained: “I’ve read your books. I saw you at the market the other day. It must be seven or eight years since I last saw you, but I recognised you at once. You were with someone, and I followed you both here. For the last few days I debated whether or not to come and meet you. Today I finally decided to come. Sorry if I’m troubling you.”

“No trouble at all. Please come in,” I said. “Your name?”

“Madan,” he said.

The couple watched him open the gate and make for the outhouse with me, concluded their work was done, and shuffled off to their silent house.

The little hall in my outhouse had two cane chairs. We sat facing each other. A few books I had brought to read were on the teapoy. He cast a quick eye over them. He looked at me and said, “I’ve read many of your books.”

I responded as I usually do, with a polite “I see, happy to know”.

He didn’t say which books and, not wanting to make things awkward for him, I didn’t ask. I told him that I sometimes went away to write and this was one of those trips.

“I thought it must be something like that,” he said. “Otherwise what would bring you here, that too alone.”

I couldn’t tell what he wanted with me. Maybe he would leave after a cup of tea, I thought. “Shall I make some tea? But there’s no milk in the house. I usually take it black.”

“Yes, please. I prefer it black too. No sugar for me either.”

“Me too. Without milk, without sugar,” I said, and went in.

I boiled water in an electric kettle and was back in a moment with tea. He had picked up the newspaper lying on the teapoy. The front page had a report on the latest WikiLeaks exposé.

“What do you do here? Where are you from?” I asked.

“Mine is a strange story,” he said. “You won’t believe me if I tell you. It has more coincidences than a cinema plot. This WikiLeaks news brings all kinds of things to mind. Dealing with the truth is not an easy thing.”

It’s not uncommon for people to come to me with their stories. They seem to think a writer will somehow understand them. I encourage them to talk. Most seem to begin with “You won’t believe this….” And that’s certainly true of some stories.

“Quite right,” I said. “Reality is often stranger than fiction. Humans create stories and God creates life. Their creations are as per their abilities.” This was an old line of mine that always went down well.

“Well, my story is not entirely God’s doing. I’ve contributed quite a lot to it. For the last five years I’ve been living here in exile.”

Who would not be curious after those words? “Tell me,” I said.

*****

My problems began when I went to a lab called Ultra to get a scan. Or to be more accurate, when I met my friend’s brother Omkar there, and he handed me a report that was not mine.

I had a headache that had persisted for weeks. A doctor recommended all sorts of tests, finally asked me to get a scan, and that’s how I ended up at this lab. After it was done, they asked me to return in an hour for the report. When I went back they dithered, telling me every few minutes that it would take just a few more minutes. While I was waiting I saw this Omkar, rushing about the lab in a white apron. It was he who recognised me with an “Uncle!” and asked what brought me there. I told him.

He said, “You won’t get the report anytime soon. The doctor has gone out. We can’t release it without his signature.” Then he said, “Let me see if I can do something. Give me your reference number.” He tapped the long number into his phone, said “One minute,” and vanished.

He returned after 15 minutes. “This is a copy of the report without the signature. It has only the reference number. The patient’s details are with the doctor and will be on the final report. I printed it from the computer. It’s the same report you’ll get if you return in two hours. Anyway it’s we technicians who do everything.”

He hesitated for a moment and asked, “How long have you been fighting this disease, uncle?” I was stunned. After a while I managed to say, “Two months.” He said, “Hmm.”

I thought I detected a note of something in his voice and prodded him. He said, “The cancer has spread everywhere and even entered the skull. Trust in God. Talk to your doctor. What I have given you is sufficient for an urgent consultation. Please don’t tell anyone here I gave it to you. You can pick up the signed report and CD tomorrow.”

I have no recollection of what went through my mind. Unable to even start my motorcycle, I sat on it for half an hour outside the lab. Then I went to the doctor. He looked at the report in horror. He asked who the evaluating radiologist was. I said I didn’t know and explained why there was no signature. He said, as if to himself, “But you have no clinical symptoms other than the headache….” and told me he would send me to a doctor at the cancer hospital. I swallowed my fear and asked, “Tell me the truth, doctor, what does this mean?” He said, “You have to be brave. It’s spread a lot. I didn’t expect this….” I pressed him: “So now?” Cornered, he said, “It’s very difficult at this stage. I can’t say how much longer. Bring the final report and we’ll see what is to be done.”

It was four in the afternoon when I got home. My wife, Seema, had not yet returned. I lay down on the bed. I felt my headache had become unbearably worse. I took two pills. I remembered I hadn’t had lunch and got the lunch-box from my bag. I ate a couple of morsels without enthusiasm.

In the evening Seema unlocked the door, entered the house, and sensing my presence, called out, “How come you’re back early?” I burst into tears. I told her everything in between sobs. She was far braver than me. “It’s okay, let it go now. Nothing will happen, it’ll be all right,” she said. I was half-prepared to believe her. “My colleague’s elder brother works at the cancer hospital. We’ll see him,” she said, and got on the phone to make an appointment. I began to feel a little better.

The next two days transformed me. Everyone was discussing my death with utmost dispassion. It filled me with fury to hear them talk about my quality of life in my remaining days. But who was I to be angry with and how? Every little thing I did, it might be the last time. Seema’s courage began to flag. “What will I do?” she sobbed. She was thinking about her plight after I was dead. That night she tossed and turned a little, but fell asleep. I couldn’t bear to see her sleeping so peacefully. I went to the kitchen to drink a glass of water and deliberately let the steel tumbler fall. She didn’t wake up. She would be just fine even after I was gone. I fell into a troubled sleep at dawn.

When I woke up Seema was rushing about before leaving for work. “I’ll be back soon… I have to go today. Will return in the afternoon. I’ll explain everything and take leave. Have breakfast… it’s in the kitchen.” I began to think of the words she would use to “explain everything”. Maybe she would use English to dull the edge. She would find it hard to utter the words in Kannada.

I stayed in bed. I felt all alone. In the few days I had, I thought I should live without lies. I should tell Seema how I really felt about her. Yes, I would live in the truth. The idea that everything around me was lies took hold of me with such intensity that it was impossible to escape. When such thoughts awaken, especially in a dying man’s mind, they give rise to a strange kind of bravado.

The instant Seema came home that afternoon I pounced. It embarrasses me to think of the things I said. And I can’t discern what was true and what I just felt in that moment. Some of what I held as shining truths were just opinions about other people. I was a man possessed.

“I never wanted to marry you. I only said yes because my uncle forced me. I was ashamed to be seen with you. Whatever little arousal I felt would vanish when I saw your chest. I don’t love you at all. We only live in the same house. Do you know why I am saying all this? I want you to know the truth before I am gone. Our life together has been a lie.”

I said all this and more, made her cry, and ultimately succeeded in provoking her.

She said, “What’s the use of telling me all this? If you’re such a man, let’s see you tell others the truth. Tell your boss what you think of him. Chase your uncle out of the house and claim your share. Who’s that fellow… Shankar… tell him he means nothing to you. You only became friends with him because you were eyeing his wife. Can you tell them? Can you tell them?”

“I’m dying anyway and you’ll be free of me. Will you be happy then?” I asked her.

“Yes, I will be happy. The way you take off your vest and go to sleep…. I’m sick of your hairless chest. Disgusting!” she said, tears welling up. Then she said, trying to be conciliatory, “Sorry, don’t feel bad”, and cried for a long time.

I called Shankar and told him he was a worm. I had only pretended to be friends with him for his wife. Seema was listening. I was harsher than needed. He was struck dumb. Then I phoned my boss, called him a bastard and went on to abuse him some more. Everyone lies, I told him, but not dying people. The scoundrel said, “I have not been lying all these days. You have. At least now we know who you are.” Madly, I called up more people. One of them even counselled me not to make enemies before I died. I was exhausted by the time I finished.

Still I took it out on Seema some more. “Tell me the truth,” I said. “That colleague of yours, Anup Shah, what’s going on between you? Don’t lie to a dying man.”

“Why are you dragging up ancient things? He moved to Delhi ten years ago.”

“I know everything. You jump up and down when he sends you a message for Deepavali or the new year. You sound different the whole day. Don’t think I can’t tell.”

She tried to wipe her tears and leave for the kitchen, but I grabbed her hand, sat her down next to me on the bed, and said, “Tell me, just tell me.”

“Yes, I liked him…he was a good friend,” she said. “He was someone I could talk to without holding back anything. He was so close I would tell him about us as well. But nothing beyond that.”

“Tell me the truth. I want the truth,” I demanded. “I’ve seen his messages on your phone,” I lied.

I put so much pressure on her that she started to say something, then stopped. The moment I saw she was ready to speak, I lost my nerve. It strikes me now that it takes courage not only to tell the truth but to hear it too. Thankfully, she didn’t go any further.

Dying people don’t lie, I had said. But why should that be so? What is the connection anyway?

I don’t know how we passed the night.

If I tell you what happened next you might think I am describing the contrived plot of a film. Omkar came looking for my house the next afternoon. He had entered the wrong number in the computer; the report was not mine; he begged for forgiveness; he would take me right away for another scan.

My awareness of death melted away without a trace after I learnt there was nothing wrong with me. But it was impossible for me to return to office. I sent in my resignation from home. It was not possible to meet Shankar again either.

Once it was clear I was not dying, Seema’s compassion vanished and a coldness set in between us.

*****

He said this much and went silent. Sensing that he expected the question, I asked, “How did you come to this city?”

“Seema and I separated. I felt I should go someplace no one knew me for a fresh start. Despite the change of place, nothing has changed within. Everyone knows that life is fleeting and death can whisk us away any moment, but still they live like it isn’t so. My own experience was a lesson in how and why we do this. Our world has brushed death out of sight. There’s a Chinese writer named Gao Xingjian who had a similar experience. You probably know him, he won the Nobel Prize. He spent six weeks in a cemetery eating his favourite foods and reading his favourite books before learning he didn’t have cancer after all. He transformed his life entirely. He spent many months hiking in the mountains and covered thousands of kilometres. But there’s been no such profound realisation in my case. I’ve slipped back into the world. All that wailing about the truth was just a moment’s madness.”

We were both quiet for some time. “Another cup of tea?” I said.

“Only if you’re having one,” he said. I got up and went inside.

When I returned, he was looking at the newspaper again. Accepting the cup from me, and pointing to the WikiLeaks story, he said : “This is what the pursuit of truth has come to in our times. They’re rejoicing because they eavesdropped on someone and repeated it to the world. Can the truth be such a simple matter? Anyway, it’s not as if my story is any different. This is an age in which we think spiritual experiences can be had through a weekend course. Let it be… You can write my story if you want.”

I laughed. He was unable to read my response.

“Don’t you think this is a strange story? Or have you heard anything like it?” he asked, again and again.

He did not leave until I agreed that his was indeed a strange story.

He said as he left, “If you do end up writing it, you must call it ‘A Strange Story’.”

Vivek Shanbhag is a Kannada author and playwright, whose most recent book is Sakina’s Kiss.

Srinath Perur writes on science, travel and books, and translates from Kannada.

This is the first short story on which they have worked together.

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