Monday, March 31, 2003

Chapter 4

"Your turn now," I say.

She is leaning back in her chair, eyes closed. Without changing position, she begins. "This story happened, perhaps..."

* * * *

By late summer, loadshedding would be in full force. A few shops around us had generators to light up their shops. The rest of us bought candles by the dozen from the mandai. Joshi saeb sold them for five paisa each to the lodgers. I think he made a bit of profit, too. None of the lodgers minded, since they were too caught up in their jobs and exams and packing and unpacking to go buy them from outside.

Akash was one of these. He'd looked around for cheaper board when he was new to the city. But his job in the factory took up too much time and he was soon too exhausted to search further. Whatever spare time he had he spent with the friends he'd made in the factory.

They generally liked him. He had the same tastes as them, he enjoyed the same sort of cheap desi daru they did, he shared his beedis and occasional cigarettes with them. He too never felt the need to change his job or move on to 'better things'. From experience they knew that those sorts soon started avoiding them. Akash of course didnt. Initially they had been bothered a bit by his seeming more intelligent than usual. But once he was caught up in the full time occupation of living he never had use for thinking too much and became more and more like them.

There was this time he came home only slightly drunk, and forgot that the candle in his room was almost finished. Halfway up the stairs he remembered...he patted his pocket to make sure he still had the matchbox. Since he was just going to sleep, that would be enough.

The room was pitch dark. It was later than usual, so the building was very quiet, too.

After he got into the room, he pulled out a match and lit it. He was looking for his change of clothes when -

Imagine what it feels like. You're alone in the pitch dark, expecting nothing but to go to sleep in a few minutes. You wave your match around your mostly empty room. You locate your old shirt. You blow out the match (you don't need it now) and are on the point of picking up the shirt when a hand grasps your shoulder .

Akash would have fainted if he hadnt been drunk. Instead, he said in a quavering voice," Who's that?"

A quiet, confident voice answered," Your conscience."

"Eh? What?"

"Your antaratmaa. Your inner voice. Your soul. Call me what you want."

Akash could either accept this without argument or go mad. He accepted it. Trying to calm his voice, he asked," What do you want?"

A chuckle. "Nothing much. I just thought I'd pay you a visit. Arent you excited?"

"Um...yes. I am." He tried to turn a little, to look around him.

"Do you want to see me?" the voice asked. "Then why dont you just light a match?"

Something in that voice - a hint of mockery, perhaps - gave Akash pause. He hesitantly said," I dont really want to see you. Not now."

The voice laughed, freely, like a child. Yet the tone made Akash shiver slightly.

"When, then? When do you want to see me?" It asked.

Akash tried to think of a safe enough time...a month? That seemed far enough to be safe. He felt that asking for more time than that would be dangerous. "One month?" He volunteered. "Can we meet in one month?"

The pressure on his shoulder eased. "One month? Why so long? Surely you cant be... afraid of me? Oh well, as you wish. I don't know how I'll be able to wait a whole month. But since you command it..."

The voice was fading all this time, and Akash wasn't sure if he actually heard the last few words, or if they were just echoes in his mind.

After a few minutes, Akash picked up the courage to light a match. The room was empty except for him.

He considered leaving the place. He could just go now to his native town. But he had the feeling that his conscience would have no trouble at all following him anywhere.

No, there was nothing to be done except get ready for it.

Akash's friends were quite disappointed with him in the days after that. He stopped talking to them. He spent more hours than ever in the factory, but he never seemed to have money when they wanted to buy a bottle and enjoy the evening. One of them saw him praying at a temple once. As if that wasn't enough, another saw him actually giving away his hard earned money to a home for orphaned brats near the factory. He'd turned into just the opposite of what he used to be. They wondered what had happened. Was he trying to snare some high class girl?

For Akash, the month went by in a daze. He kept trying harder and harder, making sure he left nothing unsavoury in his life. As the fateful evening approached, he felt the time he'd asked hadn't been enough. He wondered if he could get any more time. He'd worked in the factory all that day and was bone tired. He hoped he could go to his room and just fall asleep before anything happened. Wouldn't happen, of course.

Loadshedding time again, when he went back to the guest house. In a few weeks, the rains would be here and there would be electricity. For now, everything was dark, just like it had been a month ago. He'd bought a candle the day before, and he was prepared to face whatever it was he would see.

He unlocked his door with trembling fingers. He took two steps into the room. He turned around to close the door, and the voice said, "Hello."

"H-hello. Is that you?"

"Who else could it be. Are you ready?"

Akash mentally squared his shoulders. "Yes." He said as confidently as he could.

"Good! Go ahead, light your candle, then."

He struck the match, cupped it with both hands to make sure it lit properly. Touched it to the candle. Picked up the candle (the flame shivered ever so slightly in his hands), and walked toward the voice. The first thing he saw was a pair of brightly polished leather shoes. Somehow their neatness heartened him. He walked closer. The trousers were clean, ironed and new. The belt buckle gleamed faintly. The shirt was blue with the checks he remembered so well. It had been his favourite shirt in college. He couldn't make out the hands, they were in shadow. And he walked closer, close enough to see his conscience's face.

Suppose a child dies. Suppose that even after he's dead he somehow keeps growing. Suppose his face rots away but keeps growing, until he's old enough to live by himself in a guest house and work in a factory. Then his face would look, somewhat, like the apparition sitting on Akash's bed.

Just before the candle dropped from Akash's fingers, just before the room plunged back into darkness and he fell senseless, he heard the voice say, "Thanks for the new clothes..."

* * * *

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