Mukesh pulled on the blanket, trying like hell to bring it up to his chin. But the blanket wouldn’t co-operate, allowing him warmth only up to his chest. The rest of the way, it simply declined to move as if it had a life of its own.
Well, in a sense the night does have a life of its own-all the myriad sounds that one could hear only in the night-the howl of the wolf and that of the wind, the chirping of the crickets and the gentle whispers in a lovers’ bed.
Night was Mukesh’ blanket. He used it for cover so that the piercing lights of the sun wouldn’t bleed him. For where Mukesh lived, the sun has a different property. Of course, it does provide light and heat to the millions who inhabit that parallel world, but unlike the sun of our earth, the rays of that orb can be fierce enough to cause bleeding in those who are exposed to it for a prolonged time. Mukesh’s bedroom has a curtain which more or less blocks the rays from entering through the window, but when it comes to matters such as the bleeding your body, ‘more or less’ doesn’t quite cut it.
So it was that Mukesh pulled again on night and when night still wouldn’t afford him protection above his chest, he woke up, groggy eyed. He raised his head to look at the window behind him. Through the gap between the curtain and the windowsill he could see that it was still light outside.
He looked down at night which lay crumpled over his body like a coquettish lover.
“Oh, night, it’s still light outside!” exclaimed Mukesh. He didn’t bother concealing the irritation that he felt. “Afford me some protection till it’s time for you to shroud the entire world. When that time comes, you may leave me and I won’t complain!”
Mukesh looked into the blackness of night-to the core of nightmares. But the core remained dormant, silent.
Mukesh let out a sigh.
Though night is usually well-behaved, this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened to Mukesh. Once in a while, his blanket expresses displeasure at its owner sleeping peacefully.
Draping the blanket over his shoulder, Mukesh pulled himself out of the bed and let his shuffling feet guide him to the kitchen.
He put the kettle on the stove. In no time a cup of coffee was made. He sat down at the kitchen stool, wrapping night firmly around him- the sun even though hot still wasn’t enough to dispel the cold of the day.
“Strange days we are living through, isn’t it night?” said Mukesh, sipping the coffee, grunting with pleasure. “It can be cold and warm at the same time. It can be excruciatingly difficult and beneficial at the same time-at different places on the planet. They call it global warming, did you know that? Oh, of course, you needn’t know any such thing. Whoever heard of the night tuning into a news channel? You are above all such nonsense- after all, you are an integral part of the fabric of the world-more integral than us puny humans and our travails- with or without climate change.”
Seeing that night doesn’t display any interest in complementing him and elevating his talk from a monologue to a conversation, Mukesh stood up and walked to the window behind him. This was the only window in the house without a grill-more importantly, it was tinted black with special coating which blocked the harmful rays of the sun-to some extent.
When it got too lonely in the house, Mukesh would make a coffee, pull up a chair and sit by the window, watching the occasional car pass by on the road, and the clouds that moved languidly across the green sky.
As the day is not exactly conducive for outdoor activities, people of the planet slept during the day and their ‘work-night’ begins at around six in the evening. Almost all the offices functioned during the night and those which did have multiple shifts did so by providing cab services for those who came into work during the day-special cabs that were coated with anti-ray material to prevent the sun from damaging their valued employees.
What this essentially meant for Mukesh is that the number of vehicles on the road were negligible. Though he was twenty eight years old and had been through multiple job changes and a divorce, Mukesh still retained a childlike enthusiasm for vehicles. He himself owned an SUV-nothing fancy, a second hand he found in a shop ran by a friend. Got it for a good price too. But he still loved seeing the vehicles in motion- more than anything, he liked the idea of people moving from one point to another at a pace which they are naturally incapable of. As far as Mukesh could see, that was a great example of human ingenuity in daily life. He never ceased to be amazed by it.
“It’s a slow day, night,” he whispered, cradling the cup of coffee in his hands.
The days are always slow, said night.
‘Said’ may not be the best way to explain it for night never spoke to Mukesh- not in the conventional sense. It communicated to Mukesh telepathically though Mukesh himself did it the old fashioned way-using tongue and all the rest of the human speech apparatus.
The days are always slow, night repeated, it’s the night which has the thrills. It’s the night which brings one comfort and protection from the excruciating sunrays of the day. It’s the night which gives meaning to your life.
“Not too modest, are we?” said Mukesh, only half-jokingly.
To express the fact that it didn’t like what it heard, night began to slide down its owners back.
“No, no!” Mukesh clung onto the hem of the blanket and eventually managed to pull it back around him. “I didn’t mean anything! I was only saying,” said he, trying hard to conceal the smile which appeared on his lips.
Old and primeval though the night was, it can still be very sensitive about some things.
“You are cool, night,” said Mukesh in an undisguised effort to appease his blanket. “You are the coolest.”
And he thought back to that day when night appeared at his window, making him an offer which at first sounded incongruous:
I can be your blanket-I can give you protection from the sun until the end of your life. But in exchange, I need your soul.
The truth was, though protective measures against the sun do exist-like the sunguards they put on vehicles, none of them is foolproof. And the number of deaths directly caused by the sun still surpassed the death toll by all other means combined-assassinations, murders, diseases and accidents.
Mukesh worked as a floor supervisor at a utensil factory- the factory made kitchen utensils to be more precise. The presence of the word ‘supervisor’ in the designation aside, the job wasn’t high-paying. In fact, it wasn’t even moderately well-paying. But unlike most of his peers, Mukesh wasn’t ambitious. He didn’t wish to go to other countries where they would pay him more for the same job. He was just content with his simple life-especially after his divorce. And he didn’t intend to marry again either.
What this meant was that Mukesh was resigned to living with the bare minimum. Though he would have liked to use the term, ‘affordable poverty’ he knew that that wouldn’t suit his lifestyle- for even in his simplicity, he still had a few indulgences- like the bottle of premium scotch he brought as ration for an entire week, every week or the reasonably expensive music system which he owned. Mukesh was always a music geek and though he thought that the older he got, his passion would be lessened, the reverse turned out to be true. Sure, he couldn’t enjoy music as much as he used to when he was a teen-no one could, he thought-he couldn’t go a single day without sitting in front of the speakers for at least an hour, listening to one or the other of his favorite records. Music was, he was discovering- the greatest sanity providing presence in the universe.
After finishing the cup of coffee, he walked back to the bedroom. Though he lied down on the bed, he knew that sleep wouldn’t come easy. Once his sleep is disrupted, Mukesh never could easily get back into the comfort of a slumber. Taking his phone from the side table, he clicked on a few buttons.
The music player on the table whirred to life- a mechanical female voice saying: “Battery- 50 percent. Ready to pair.” One more click on Mukesh’ phone and the player said, “Connected to Mukesh in a Rut”
‘Mukesh in a rut’ was a joke that existed between him and his ex-wife. A joke that originated way before their relationship began to turn sour. She had noticed from early in their relationship that whenever he was upset-like, seriously upset about something, he would sit listening to music for a long time, uttering no word to anyone. She joked that whenever Mukesh is in a rut, it’s to music that he turned to. Though she meant it as a half-complaint, given how Mukesh depended more on music than on his wife during his dark periods.
It was only after the divorce that Mukesh thought of renaming his phone- as an ode to a relationship that was short lived yet had its moments.
A song began to play. The opening bars were played with cello which was soon accompanied by a ukulele- a rather exotic combination that found its back beat in drums. Mukesh knew this to be the opening riffs of a song which he has listened to a bizillion times. In fact, the song was one that was played a lot when he was with his wife.
He almost began to enjoy it before he realized that something wans’t right. He listened closely to the notes of the music- to each and every variation in tone which formed the symphony. But nothing seemed off, yet he knew that something wasn’t right.
He sat up on the bed. That’s when he realized what exactly was wrong-nothing with the song itself which played in its beautiful harmony. Only, the song was not stored in his phone at the moment, and there was no way that the player could play anything that wasn’t in the phone.
He opened the music folder in the phone and browsed through it even though he was completely sure that he wouldn’t find the song in there.
He opened an album and pushed play.
But still, the same song persisted.
He tried another track but only to get the same result.
“What the-“ he moved towards the music player. He turned it off and then switched it right back on-sometimes, the maneuver helps remove minor glitches, but when he paired the speakers with the phone again, the same song began to play once more- the cello and the ukulele ushering in the rest of the notes which made the 4 minute track.
“What the hell is going on!” he said more to himself than to night.
But night was prompt in replying, Ukulele and cello- they don’t really get along well.
At this, Mukesh’s brows burrowed into a frown. “What are you talking about?”
Cello has a rather high timbre when compared with the Ukulele, night said as though Mukesh’ question wasn’t rhetoric. In theory, night continued, it works fine but in practice, it doesn’t. At least that’s what this song shows.
“What do you mean by that?” said Mukesh, rather passionately. “You have any idea how long this song remained on the number one spot in all the major charts?”
Night continued as if Mukesh hasn’t said anything- You have been listening to this song for so long, for so many years. But you missed this obvious fact-that the two instruments which are featured prominently throughout the song-don’t really get along. Much like you and your ex-wife, when she was your wife, the night added.
Mukesh was surprised by this statement of the night, but the surprise lasted only for a little while as it was soon replaced by sadness.
That in turn brought about another bout of surprise as Mukesh had thought that his emotions regarding his ex-wife were all exhausted long ago.
That’s the trouble with you, Mukesh, continued Night in a voice that was as soft as silk. You are always exposed to the truth, only you never manage to discern it. Not until someone points it out to you. And there won’t be people around to point things out to you all the time. That’s the reason I took pity on you and decided to become your protector. Sure, the sun was one of the reasons but not the only one, not by a long shot.
Whereas earlier the night had been reluctant to cover Mukesh, now it wrapped itself around Mukesh more tightly than ever before, on its own volition.
It said, You are one of the most helpless individuals I have ever known. And I have been keeping a watch on you long before I appeared at your window that day. After a brief pause, night continued: The thing is, Mukesh, you have a very good soul. I wouldn’t say pure soul-for pure souls can’t exist in this world. Every human soul is tainted. But, you, with all your frailties and beliefs, you come close.
The sudden mention of his ex-wife has thrown Mukesh’s mind off its natural track and he required a few moments before he could bring it back to focus. Once he did that and once he was confident that he could speak in something other than a shaky voice he said, “Is that why you wanted my soul in exchange for your protection?”
There was a momentary pause. A brief silence in which even the song that played was outside of its realm. For the silence was a shared material between Mukesh and the night and no one, or nothing else.
When night spoke, it was with the calm assurance of something that has seen more life than any single human being could ever hope for. It said, Yes. But if you think that I tricked you, you are mistaken. I am the night. I have existed way before you. The universe, for the most part is filled with me-absence of light, dark and cold. I am the largest of existential facts! I don’t have to trick anyone!
“I never said you tricked me,” said Mukesh, sounding feeble to his own ears, “I gave you my soul on my own volition. Because I have no intention of earning a lot of money-enough to help me afford a fancy house and all the treatment and preventive facilities with which the rich get away from the sun. I know the stats, night. The people who die from the sun-rarely are they rich. But yes, I too like to live a life of pleasure-and live for a long time, though for me pleasure is defined on simpler terms-like listening to music and going on a drive to the beach.”
Fair enough, said night, after just the briefest pause. But that’s not the only reason you gave me your soul so willfully, is it? Night inched closer towards Mukesh’ ear. Though the blanket didn’t use any audible sound to communicate with Mukesh, the movement did make Mukesh listen more closely-instinctively.
And though a human naturally doesn’t have the ability of pre-cognition, Mukesh did know what Night was going to say next-something he wished he didn’t have to hear. But the night said it anyway:
You gave me your soul because you felt burdened by it.
Boys don’t cry-something that his mother has always told him whenever as a child, he would cry-sometimes when he fell down while playing and at other times for being scolded for not doing homework.
And that’s an advice he has always respected. Not even on the night when the divorce was settled, when he was lying on his bed, all alone in the dead of the night, feeling miserable like a shriveled up cucumber did he cry.
But now, tears came out of his eyes with an easiness that surprised him. And even though he kept rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand in an effort to curb the tears, the drops would not cease.
He felt a darkness settle inside his chest- a dead cold weight that was like a fist closing in on his heart.
“You take what you want,” he murmured, and lowered his head. He was familiar with the feeling-the cold and the dark which was a prelude to the night’s command to his soul-to give up some of its fragments. The soul has to be saddened first, and then only can the night suck the fragments out-to make itself stronger, to make itself eternal.
Once in a while, night doesn’t allow people to sleep. For it wants a fragment of your soul.