Hey folks! I am so excited to be back with a short story. Well, I won’t deny it anymore. I have submitted this particular short story to Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017. I don’t think it’s a good candidate, but I just gave it a try. This is not literary fiction, too. I tried to make it into one, but failed miserably. Anyway, I am allowed to post the story on my personal blog. Please let me know your honest views. I would appreciate if you give me constructive criticism.
Perched atop the hills, amidst the evergreen pine trees, was a stone slab. It had acquired a thick sheet of moss, as a result of the torrential downpour that thrashed across the hill station the previous night. The slab looked overly damp, however, the passersby had no idea that it belonged to an old man, the only man who respected the slab as a dwelling place. He spent the days beside the slab, either singing or beckoning people to listen to what he had to say. But, being the self-obsessed bunch, they never even spared a look at him, let alone listen to the soulful stories that he had to narrate. When the nights arrived and a freezing cold set in, he would take a stroll along the road, find a cosy hotel, spread the worn-out rug on the scanty porch and doze off to the dream world, expecting more tales to pop up as dreams. However, he would get shooed away the next morning. He would resume his day as usual, singing, narrating to no one in particular, and eating in cheap roadside eateries.
‘Why doesn’t anyone listen to me? These stories are sure to open up your minds. Oh, ignorant people, don’t you realize that the trees want to speak to you? Don’t you realize that the very mud on which you walk has stories to tell? Have you become abundantly negligent of your surroundings that you blind yourselves to the wisdom that the nature has to offer? Or have you lost faith in yourself that you fail to look at optimistic things?’ This was the daily lament of the old man, who perfectly knew that his rants fell on deaf ears. Nevertheless, he dwelled on a streak of hope that someday somebody would surely listen to him.
‘Hey, why don’t we just talk to him?’ whispered Swetlana, slightly nudging Hayaathi, who was busily ruffling the pages of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
‘Will you shut up for some time? This is a library,’ snarled Hayaathi.
Swetlana let out a tiny snort. Her tawny skin, highlighted by the sunrays through the bay windows, made her resplendent. Her other distinguishable features were her always-smiling pouty lips and her deep-set eyes.
Brought up in Lady Martha Orphanage, the only all-girls orphanage in Ooty, the best friends Hayaathi and Swetlana grew up to be modest and kind. Their friendship was so strong that they went to the extent of enrolling in the same college for their B.A English Literature, sharing a room in a ladies’ hostel, and signing up for the same virtual hobby class. They even earned a few bucks by writing literary fiction stories to e-magazines. They have had their share of relationships and heartbreaks, with Hayaathi giving away her heart to a corny classmate, who had liked her only for her soft and tender porcelain skin, delicate lips, beady eyes, and wavy hair, while Swetlana was taken in by a womanizer, who claimed to be loyal to her, yet became entranced by the captivating looks of a rather luscious woman. However, being mentally strong women, they got over the bad breakups and snapped out of them. They moved on to do their M.A in English Literature, dreaming of becoming full-time writers or at least do something creatively in their field of passion.
‘Well, time is up! We have to leave the library. I am asking you again. Why – don’t – we – talk – to – him?’ asked Swetlana, stressing on each word as she spoke.
‘Cut the crap, Swetlana! Yeah, I know he is a poor old man. I am not against people, who are dressed in rags, possess filthy nails, sport scars on their faces, have long unkempt beard and beg for their livelihood, but I don’t think we should disturb him. We already have much to do. We have to think ideas for our final writing project. You just keep thinking about talking to the old man and you don’t even realize that we mutually agreed to daily walks along Lovedale just to get inspired and find ideas for our project. That old begging man was a mere coincidence.’
‘He doesn’t beg!’ roared Swetlana; while the librarian’s stern voice asked her to keep quiet. ‘Haven’t you even noticed him properly?’ She whispered. ‘He narrates stories, sings songs and quotes famous people, but he doesn’t beg. It is those feeble-minded ones who mistake him to be a mere beggar, pity on him, and drop coins in his bowl. And mind you! I saw what was in that bowl. He brings some food from the nearby temple and consumes it peacefully. It is not a begging bowl.’
Hayaathi eyed at her suspiciously, wondering whether she had gone nuts. Clearing her throat, she chose her words carefully, ‘So, who do you think that old man is?’
‘Might be a storyteller.’
‘A storyteller? Do they exist nowadays?’
‘That is why I am asking you, why don’t we speak to him?’
A faint smirk escaped from Hayaathi’s lips, but she gave in to Swetlana’s weird idea, mildly hoping that they would find something useful out of their meeting with the so-called storyteller.
It happened on September 1st. It had been a week since the old man had made the stone slab his dwelling place. Still he couldn’t persuade people to stop and listen to his stories. He spread out his rug, gently plopped down on it and began eating the food from his bowl, which he had acquired from the nearby Krishna Mandir. Even after swallowing the last morsel of the delicious meal, he felt terribly hungry. He earnestly wished he could go back to the temple, stand in the queue once again and refill his bowl, but his conscience thought the better of it. He would surely be chased away, for the temple authorities can easily identify that he had come for the second time.
Meanwhile, in Sheetal Ladies’ Hostel, Hayaathi and Swetlana were gearing up for their big meeting with their assumed storyteller. They clad themselves in their respective woollen jumpers with floral patterns. Slipping their mobile phones into the pockets of their jeans, they set out into the cold morning. The mist looked filmy, with shavings of it passing right across their eyes. While walking along the path, they gaped at the dew drops on the tea leaves, wishing that they could watch more of the scenery below the valley, instead of babbling to each other. The entire atmosphere was so jubilant, that they could feel warmness searing through their veins. After walking for two kilometres, they came to a standstill in front of Sweety Tea Stall, which was their usual retreat for a cup of steaming chocolate tea. The stall owner, Vishveshwar, flashed a lopsided smile at the pair and proceeded towards preparing their tea.
‘Hey! Can we get some chocolate tea for the old man? He might be thirsty or hungry,’ said Hayaathi with an air of happiness in her tone.
‘Are you sure? You were reluctant to join me in this meeting. What makes you care for him suddenly?’ asked Swetlana, while receiving their cups of hot and piping chocolate tea from the server.
‘Well, it’s just that – er – I pity him.’
‘Hmmm, that’s not a bad emotion, Hayaathi, but I think he can take care of himself.’
‘No! I want to do this. Let’s get something for him.’
With those words, Hayaathi went over to Vishveshwar and ordered for some chocolate tea to be poured in a small flask, which the latter used to keep for taking some tea to home in the evenings. After much persuasion, Vishveshwar poured the tea into the flask. He did not charge for it, when he heard that it was for a poor struggling man. Hayaathi had painted such a sorry picture of the old man, that Vishveshwar couldn’t stop feeling pity for him.
‘Let him keep the flask. I will buy another one,’ he said.
‘Huh, no. We will wash the flask and give it back to you. I think this will be a daily routine.’
Vishveshwar’s smile widened.
Swetlana finished off her tea and met a corn seller outside. She bought a cob of steamed corn and wrapped it with silver foil.
‘I think this might satiate his hunger completely. Nothing can match the feeling of having delicious chocolate tea along with steamed corn. Let him enjoy the small pleasures that he is currently deprived of,’ she said.
‘Yeah, I agree. Can we move?’ asked Hayaathi with a renewed sense of euphoria.
The old man stretched his arms and legs, making the book in his right hand visible to the passersby – Dasavathara Kadhaigal, stories behind the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu. He had just then abandoned his idea of visiting the Krishna Mandir for a second round of food. Something inside him told that food was on his way; his intuition was strengthened by his belief that someone might finally come to listen to his stories. Right then, two girls materialized in front of him, one smiling widely at him, and the other flashing an uneasy smile. He gestured them to take a seat, to which Hayaathi grimaced, since the slab was now completely covered in damp moss, but Swetlana did not mind. She was happy to oblige, forcing Hayaathi to comply.
‘What makes you visit my humble abode?’ The old man asked in a hoarse tone.
‘We have brought you some steamed corn and chocolate tea. Hope this satisfies your hunger,’ replied Swetlana jovially. Her voice quivered with excitement; perhaps, she felt an undefined happiness within her. Even Hayaathi could not stop beaming, though she was still in a state of non-acceptance.
‘Thank you, but I wish that you could do more than just give me food.’
‘Oh, we can help. Tell us your needs,’ said Swetlana, still in a dazed state of gaiety.
‘I just wish you to sit and listen to the stories which I narrate.’ There was a tinge of sorrow in the old man’s voice.
‘Er – We can definitely listen to….’ began Swetlana, but she was abruptly cut off by a visibly angry Hayaathi, ‘Swetlana, do you even realize that we are on this walk to get inspired? You wanted to speak with him and you have done that. Now, will you join me?’
‘What the hell is happening to you, Hayaathi? I didn’t even begin the conversation. What makes you so impatient?’ She hissed at her.
‘It’s just that…’
‘Why are you failing to realize inspiration?’ asked the old man, suddenly. ‘Inspiration is around you. Just look around, everything you see has a story of its own. The people you meet, the shops you visit, the lakes you admire and the animals you fear, everything has a story. Inspiration is just like happiness, you must not go in search of it. You must realize that it is around you. Every time, everywhere.’
Hayaathi was rendered silent, not knowing what to reply to the old man’s philosophical discourse. She was pulled into a deep trance of thoughts. Meanwhile, Swetlana was rather pleased that the old man was able to stop her friend’s tantrums. She turned to him and asked in a soft tone, ‘I want to listen more. Can you tell us some stories? We can pay you.’
‘Ah! I don’t need any payment. Just a patient ear is enough, but I need your friend’s attention, too.’
At the mention of her, Hayaathi looked up and met the old man’s watery eyes. She slowly smiled lopsidedly, prodding him to continue, while Swetlana silently heaved a sigh of relief.
‘The stories which I tell are not the ones that you’d find in library books. In fact, you cannot find these stories in any recorded format. I have imbibed them right from my childhood. You need to understand the deeper meaning in them, the complexities which lay in them, and the secrets which they would reveal. These stories are ambrosia for your soul.’ The old man ended his rigmarole and looked at the girls with expectant eyes, but they were deeply enchanted by his words, that no expression or sound escaped from them.
‘I am indeed grateful to have your rapt attention. Let me begin a story now. This is about guilt. Sometimes we do something stupid, in order to bring someone’s downfall. We might thrive on the delightful feeling of Schadenfreude, but always remember, whatever you do comes back to you. Or whatever you have done to bring that someone’s misfortune might completely backfire and you might find yourself in an irreparable state of guilt. This story is about one such guy who was made to live with guilt, forever. This boy was lovingly called as Somu by his family and friends alike…’
The old man went on to narrate how the so-called Somu had hated his irresponsible father, planned to kill him by setting explosives on his boat, but ended up killing his close friend Gullu’s father. ‘And, Somu was never found after that. With one wrongdoing of his, he took away an innocent man’s life and lost a good friend, too.’ He finished and took a sip of the chocolate tea, which was already turning cold.
Swetlana and Hayaathi looked dumbstruck. Though they had heard N number of folklore stories in their childhood, something in the old man’s narration seemed to captivate them.
‘That was a fascinating tale!’ It was Hayaathi who spoke first. ‘We – we’ll surely come back for more.’
‘Words defy me, storyteller. Please continue to inspire us. By the way, what’s your name?’ asked Swetlana.
‘I have no name. Also, I don’t need to know any of your names. I would be contented if you paid me frequent visits and listened to my stories.’
The girls looked at each other enigmatically and chorused together, ‘Of course, we will!’
While walking back to their hostel, Swetlana put forth carefully, ‘Well, how do you feel, Hayaathi?’
‘Magical,’ she said in a serious tone.
‘I want to know more about the storyteller.’
‘No chance! He seems to be secretive. We must let him be.’
Hayaathi nodded, feeling all the more motivated.
‘What have you brought today? Ah, milk!’ exclaimed the storyteller, while sniffing the flask and taking in the aroma of pure milk.
‘Straight from my neighbour Mala akka’s cowshed. Unadulterated,’ quipped in Swetlana. The storyteller smiled at her pleasantly and proceeded to drink it. He looked at the girls only after the last drop of milk went down his throat.
‘How marvellous is purity!’ he exclaimed, to which the girls nodded.
‘It’s been ten days, and we kind of feel attached to you. I mean, to your stories. They keep us going. They act as a catalyst for us whenever we feel low. I don’t know what we would do after we return to college. We wouldn’t be able to meet you. Your stories will be missed.’ Hayaathi put forth.
‘Don’t worry, child. As I had already said, stories are around you. Every breath which you inhale contains stories. You can never miss listening to stories. Okay?’ The storyteller replied in his hoarse voice.
‘But that’s not the problem. We would miss YOUR stories. They are different from the rest. They are a whiff of radiance in our otherwise dull life. Your stories keep us disconnected from the chaotic world around us. As soon as we return to our room after your storytelling session, we ponder upon the deeper meaning encompassed in your stories. They make us think, understand the true meaning of life, and imbibe the values in our lifestyle. We would surely miss that.’ Swetlana said.
‘Well, that’s what real stories should do. If they don’t teach you something, they aren’t stories at all. Fiction should not take you to a world that is perfect, that which makes you wonder ‘Ah! Wish I was born in that world’, instead it should take you to a flawed universe, where there are mistakes, problems, treachery, and heartbreaks; it should first make you wonder ‘Thank God! I wasn’t born in such a world’, and then it should teach you to learn from the mistakes, overcome the problems, surmise treachery, and handle heartbreaks with élan, finally making you think that that world was beautiful, too.’
‘The fiction which we read doesn’t do that to us, but your stories do. And it will continue to.’ Hayaathi concluded.
Then the storyteller proceeded to narrate a mystery story about an archaeologist and a librarian, who struggle to carve a niche for themselves in a male dominated world, by solving the case of mental patients who die mysteriously. Though it was a suspense filled tale, the girls felt empowered, since the storyteller had emphasized on feminism. It was hard to believe that he had spun the story by himself.
‘Why don’t you publish these stories? Why don’t you show the world that you can change the views of people by your storytelling?’ Swetlana asked.
‘I cannot do that. I tell stories only to people who deserve them. If my stories had changed you, then you can change the world in turn.’
With that, their session ended.
‘Why do all the good things come to an end?’ asked Swetlana, tears streaming down from her eyes. Even Hayaathi was upset, but she wasn’t shedding tears.
‘They should. That’s how the universe goes on.’ She did not have anything better to reply.
It was the last day of September. The storyteller had already hinted about his departure and they had remembered it only a day before. Though they desperately wished that he wouldn’t leave, he would not budge to any of their requests. They also pestered him with questions about his name, age, and permanent staying place. However, he maintained a mysterious silence and never answered them, and as fate could have it, they came across an accident on the day of his departure, stopped to help the bleeding man, called an ambulance, and sent him safely to the hospital, thereby reaching Lovedale an hour later. The storyteller was already gone.
‘Wish I could have had a last word with him! We don’t even know his name. How will we ever find him?’ cried Swetlana.
Hayaathi plopped down next to her on the damp stone slab. ‘You know, he lives with us through his stories. We have heard enough from him. Those stories can last for a lifetime. Maybe it’s time we should tell them to people who deserve to hear them.’
‘Yes, I shouldn’t brood over him. His stories still live with us.’ That was all Swetlana could say.
Back in college, their projects received the highest marks. Rave reviews wafted towards them and filmmakers approached them with proposals to direct their stories as short films. The storyteller had indeed changed their life for good.
‘Zentroy Advertising Limited? I have never heard of it,’ said Hayaathi quizzically.
‘Ma’am, do you think we should accept this offer?’ asked Swetlana, waving the call letter in front of the Head of Literature Department.
‘This is strange. No other student has received the letter. I am rather suspicious about its authenticity. However, the company is the best in India. They come up with advertisements that no one can ever think of. Their concepts are way beyond imagination,’ replied the HOD.
‘I can’t believe that only we both were selected.’
‘Intrigues me, too. I think they might have watched the short films which were based on your stories.’
‘Might be. Should we accept this?’
‘If you join this company, your life will change altogether. You’ll go places with your penchant for storytelling. Their pay is also good and they are also situated in the heart of Coimbatore. Let me verify the letter’s authenticity and get back to you.’
The girls nodded vigorously.
Wherever they looked, there was enthusiasm in the air. It seemed like happiness had replaced workload, stress, pressure, and deadlines. Zentroy Advertising Limited created a winsome impression in the girls’ mind. They could not stop gaping at the buoyant employees, the charming receptionist, the aesthetic interiors, and the colourfully decorated cabins.
‘Swetlana and Hayaathi, please come with me. I will introduce you to your boss.’ A sweet voice beckoned them. They looked up and met a dreamy-looking girl with protuberant eyes. She led them through many levels, before they reached the ‘Creative Ideas’ department. The nameplate on the door was designed using classical fonts, which rendered it a literary look.
‘Excuse me, Sinish, shall I come in?’ asked the girl.
‘You very well know that I don’t like formality, Vrushika,’ boomed a sonorous voice from the other end of the pristine white, artistic, air-conditioned room. He had his back to them, admiring a painting on the wall, which wasn’t visible for the women from their position.
‘Ah! I am so forgetful,’ Vrushika replied cheerfully. Swetlana moved a little aside to have a good look at the painting; it was a charcoal painting of a girl sitting on a chair by the fireplace, deeply engrossed in a book. The man called Sinish slowly turned around to meet the girls. He was lanky, broad shouldered, with an olive skin tone that accentuated his facial features beautifully, and had a horse shaped face. An air of importance surrounded him; his expressive eyes gazed from Hayaathi to Swetlana, and stopped on Vrushika eventually. The stubble on his chin and the barely visible moustache completed his personable look. He walked towards them, taking small steps, as if his path was filled with punctuations that weren’t discernible to normal eyes. He stopped in front of Swetlana, inhaled a deep breath, and looked at her, hard into her deep-set eyes.
‘Hello, Swetlana.’ Tiny goosebumps erupted on her skin as she heard his rotund tone. Strangely, she could not meet his honey-coloured eyes.
‘Hello, Sinish,’ she replied meekly.
Sinish turned around and said, ‘Hello, Hayaathi.’
‘Hello, Sinish, how do you know our names? I don’t remember Vrushika telling them to you.’ Hayaathi asked suspiciously.
‘I know them beforehand.’
That was it. He didn’t provide any more explanations. After a few minutes, Vrushika took leave.
‘Do take your seat. There are lots to discuss.’ He gestured to the duo.
For the next one hour, Sinish’s room echoed with the company’s success stories. He even hinted upon his work methods, the kind of story ideas which he approves for the social cause advertisements, and the recreational activities that they conduct. After he finished, he took a sip from his water bottle, and waited for the girls to ask questions.
‘Why were we recruited? How do you know about us?’ It was Swetlana.
There was a moment of silence before Sinish calmly replied, ‘God favours the kind.’
Days passed by as Hayaathi and Swetlana worked along with Sinish on exciting advertisements. Their story ideas were instantly approved by him, while he found flaws with the ideas submitted by others. Though the girls felt strange, they couldn’t pose their questions to him, since he maintained a mysterious aura around him. During lunch breaks, he would lunch along with them, narrating them funny stories from his college life, while the other employees began spreading rumours that he fancied the girls and was partial to them, but in reality, he was enchanted with the stories narrated by the girls, that his heart wanted to listen to more. But, whenever the girls asked about their recruitment, he repeated the same words, ‘God favours the kind.’
‘I think I am falling for him,’ stated Swetlana, as bluntly as she could, keeping the ecstasy out of her voice. It was a cool January evening and the girls were in the cafeteria for their break.
Hayaathi choked on her coffee and replied, ‘Have you turned mad? Sinish will banish you from the office, if he gets to know that you have developed feelings for him. Just because he’s close to you and discusses his personal life with you doesn’t mean that he’d end up as your husband.’
‘Oh, stop being such a dork! He will love me, too,’ she replied dreamily.
‘Do you know what the others speak about him? He goes off to month-long vacation a year, to places unknown. Nobody would know where he would be.’
‘That is of least concern to me.’
‘Well, if you want to invite troubles in your otherwise tranquil life, I cannot help it.’ Hayaathi threw the Styrofoam cup in the dustbin and moved away.
‘Love is a peculiar emotion, Swetlana. The intensity of love in this story should be expressed in such a way that the message strikes the audience right at their heart. Understood?’ Sinish asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
Swetlana looked deep into his eyes and replied slowly, ‘Have you ever fallen in love, Sinish?’ Her voice was rather passionate.
‘Yes. I fell in love with books. Stories, in general. And I still love them.’
For a moment, Swetlana had reminisces of the missing storyteller. A sudden gush of affection flowed through her veins.
‘You remind me of the missing storyteller, who changed our life.’
‘The missing storyteller?’
‘Long story. Will tell you later.’
Sinish’s words kept echoing the entire day in Swetlana’s mind. She could not share it with Hayaathi, as she was busy working on another project.
The resignation letter was a definite blow to them; it was unexpected, and unwanted. Every soul in the office was murmuring and discussing the sudden turn of events. Some even spun theories involving the girls – that they had a hand in the whole drama. But, the girls were the most affected, especially Swetlana. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that her true love was no more working in the office. Since he was a mysterious man, he never left any contact number, or a friendly note to his subordinates, stating the real reason for his resignation. The only phone which he used was the company provided mobile phone. He was not in any social networking sites, which would have tracked him down easily, even before any police personnel can track down a criminal.
‘I – I just want to disappear, Hayaathi,’ sobbed Swetlana. Hayaathi laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and then pulled her into an embrace. Though she was initially reluctant to accept Swetlana’s obsession for Sinish, she warmed up to the idea of a relationship between them.
‘We have lost the two precious people of our life – the storyteller and Sinish. Both were mysterious. And both disappeared without a trace.’ Swetlana continued in her teary voice.
‘That makes me wonder, too. I can accept the disappearance of the storyteller. He was just an old man, so he wouldn’t have any connections with the virtual world, but Sinish was our boss. He was a well-paid working professional, who teemed with ideas and exhibited exceptional talent; he just cannot disappear without a trace.’
‘I know, right? I have searched every nook and cranny of the virtual world, but he doesn’t seem to exist. I think he is a paranormal entity.’
‘Jeez! Can’t you think of any better explanation? You know, both the storyteller and Sinish have taught us something – the ability to believe in stories, find inspiration everywhere, and bring a change in the world.’
‘Can’t agree more!’ A faint smile appeared on Swetlana’s lips.
‘What’s that?’ Hayaathi pointed to a gift box and a letter that lay on the stone slab. The girls felt that a visit to Lovedale to reminisce the storyteller’s memories would rejuvenate them, but they were surprised to see something waiting for them on the stone slab.
‘The storyteller has left something for us! So he was here!’ Hayaathi bellowed.
She unfolded the letter and began to read, her eyes widening with every word that was written. In a dazed state, she passed it on to Swetlana, who was unwrapping the gift box. She stopped, received the letter, and began to read.
‘To Hayaathi and Swetlana,
I don’t have to explain to the other employees of our department. But, you both were special to me. Not only as employees, but as friends in the office premises, and as the kind strangers who spent time with me in the very same stone slab in the month of September. Am I being mysterious, again? Yes, I was and I am the storyteller. I know people told you that I take month-long vacation a year. During that one month, I travel to places and live in disguise. The storyteller was one of my disguises. My aim was to teach the art of storytelling to whoever stopped to listen to me, but I took something with me that was greater than those stories. I learnt kindness. Yes, I learnt it from you both. It was I who personally recruited you to Zentroy.
Okay, let me come straight to the point. Hayaathi, you have been promoted to my position in our department. You’ll find the promotion letter in your cabin. And, Swetlana, will you marry me?’
Swetlana’s heart did a double take as she read that line.
‘There will be a ring in the gift box. Take it, turn around, and find me waiting in the red car. You can join me as my secretary in the advertising company which I own. Yeah, only if you accept my proposal. Otherwise, you can refuse and continue with Zentroy. It’s up to you.
And, girls, you’ll never find me in the virtual world. That’s because my name is Sineesh, not Sinish.
Always remember, God favours the kind.’
The girls turned around and found the red car parked at a distance. The lanky figure, the missing storyteller, and the man who changed their life, waved to them, flashing his million dollar smile.
While Swetlana moved towards him, Hayaathi set off to Zentroy, each welcoming a new life.
TELL ME YOUR VIEWS! EAGERLY WAITING FOR YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE STORY. 🙂