Narayana Murthy couldn’t really say that the face on the mirror was all that bad, considering that the face has weathered almost 50 years(he will hit the half a century mark next month) and seen all the travails and joys which such a time period could bring a man. Sure, he could have done with a little less creases and maybe time could have been more stringent with the black marks that developed on his right cheek with age. But all in all, it was a pretty decent affair-and the best part, he still had a full head of hair.
Having finished putting in the right order the aforementioned hair, he pushed the small blue comb into the back pocket of his pants and called out, “Sarasu, I am leaving!”
Sawaswati, his dearly beloved wife of 24 years came running from the kitchen with the tiffin in hand. Murthy had long since given up trying to understand why it was that she still managed to deliver him the tiffin only in the last minute-after all, she enter the kitchen at dawn.
“There’s some palada that I made, it’s in the smaller box. Don’t forget to have it!” Saraswati was from a Malayali lineage. Her grandmother apparently was the great master when it came to making palada. Murthy wouldn’t say that Sarasu’s prepration was the absolute best but he would gladly vouch for the fact that once you had what she made, the idea of having food from restaurants begins to loose charm.
He nodded, smiled at her, patted her shoulder, wished-not for the first time that he could lose his inhibition about kissing her at such moments. What if the kids saw? was the question which occupied his mind, and inhibited his body at such moments.
‘See you in the evening,” with these words he stepped out of the front door and was immediately greeted by the sound of a bell ringing.
As he passed the neighbor’s door, he couldn’t help but throw a glance in that direction. And just as he expected, there stood the reed thin woman-Lalitha by name, ringing a small bell, her eyes half closed in a trance-like expression, mumbling some prayer which was audible only to herself and comprehensible, Murthy was sure, to no God.
Though from a Hindu family. Lalitha had given up the religion and adopted another. This new one is based on a book-Murthy didn’t remember the name of the book though Lelitha had explained all about it to himself and Sarasu one day when they were invited over for dinner soon after they moved in a few months back. It involved praying to invisible spirits than to any idol. And it was a religion of doom in that it foresaw calamities upon worse calamities in mankind’s future.
They-Lelitha and her husband had moved in quite recently, and even though they largely keep to themselves, for some reason Murthy felt that something was amiss with them.
“It’s because they follow another religion!” Saraswati would chide him. “You know I don’t have anything against other religions!” he would retort. His wife would gently pat him on the shoulder and say, “Not when Hindus switch religions!”
He would object to this as well, but only in a half-hearted manner. For he earnestly believed that the Hindu religion is the most heartfelt of all religions-for no matter who you are, there’s always some deity among the plentitude whom you would like.
Thoughts about the odd religion followed by Lelitha persisted in his mind on that day. Even when he rode the bus to work, he kept thinking about why someone would abandon such a lovely religion and take up something that’s so doom-centric. And with every mile that the bus traversed, the thoughts intensified, and so did the accompanying uneasiness.
By the time he reached his office(“Kornat Consultants”- a four roomed office tucked away in the third floor of a glass fronted building), the uneasiness has become so bad that he began frequently looking back, as if someone was following him.
‘Surely, this cannot be because of thoughts about my neighbor?’ thought Murthy.
He had hoped that having lunch-including the paladas which Sarasu had so lovingly made for him would bring down the nervousness or uneasiness. But the mysterious situation persisted. If anything in the post-lunch session, it became worse.
Thank God I can still perform my work, he thought, double checking a tax sheet for a client. The job of a tax consultant wasn’t something which could be done while uneasiness the cause of which you didn’t know of hovered over your head like so many buzzing bees.
Contrary to routine he didn’t join his colleagues in their small talk during the evening tea break, claiming that he had a function to attend in the evening and so must leave a bit early. “Early to rest work, early to leave!” he joked in English.
Though there was no function to attend, he did leave earlier than usual, the uneasiness closely following him.
It was not until after he had got down from the bus, when he was walking towards home, taking the small lane where he could pick up the laundry which he had given for washing from the dhobis that he realized the reason for the uneasiness.
Standing under the yellow glare of the halogen bulbs on a street lamp, a few neatly pressed(not to mention cleaned) clothes held carefully in hand, Murthy kept turning around like a dog chasing its own tail, looking for what was missing-his shadow.
Murthy had every intention of telling Sarasu about it(“You know, I cannot seem to be able to find my shadow!”). But when he reached home, he saw that she was busy gossiping with someone in the neighbourhood. Probably about a loud noise which they have heard from one of the flats-speculating about the reason that precipitated such a loud scream or the sound of glass breaking. Such noises were not all that uncommon in the apartment block.
Murthy’s ten year old son-Naren was lying curled up on the sofa watching a Hollywood film. When Murthy moved slowly across the living room floor, he called out, “Move aside, papa! I can’t see the TV!” He didn’t even look up at Murthy, let alone notice the fact that his father was missing his shadow.
After taking a shower, Murthy felt incredibly tired. The last time he felt this tired was when he was in college, when he used to play football. After a match, he and his team mates would go straight to a restaurant where they would have roti and chicken(Murthy was a ‘rebel non-vegetarian’ during that time). After a heavy dinner, he would reach home and take a bath. Almost as soon as his head touched the pillow, he would fall asleep.
He felt that kind of fatigue now. And as soon as his head touched the pillow, he did fall asleep.
He came awoke briefly when Saraswathy shook him awake, a worried expression on her face, asking, “Are you okay?”
“I am fine. Just so tired. Too much work at work,” Murthy said rather cryptically before turning over and going right back to snooze.
The next morning, Murthy awoke feeling well rested. The dust particles stood out in sharp relief in the shaft of light which fell in through the window.
‘It’s as though the sleep had helped amplify his eyesight!’ thought Murthy, smiling.
Getting off the bed, he slowly moved into the path of the light, turned around and looked to the floor at a space just in front of his feet. No shadow.
“How are you feeling now?”
He was startled by the sound of his wife’s voice. Sarasu stood at the door to the bedroom, looking a little flustered, as she always did after the hectic two hours in which she had to send Naren to school-prepare breakfast, prepare lunch specifically for him-he rarely ate rice, so his was a different tiffin from that of Murthy who was a rice guy through and through.
“I am feeling good,” he said. She didn’t look convinced though she didn’t say anything about it either.
Instead, she said, “Are you not going to work today?”
“Yes,” he said. He was about to point out to her the facet of the shadow when she said, “ Okay, I will prepare lunch, then. The breakfast is on the table. Ready yourself fast!” And just like that, she was gone.
Sometimes, Murthy feels that for her sending him to work is very similar to sending Naren to school.
As the morning fully set in and the after-sleep cobwebs lifted from his head, Murthy found it progressively harder to breach the subject of the shadow with his wife. “I seem to have misplaced my shadow.” “Have you ever seen a person without shadow? Ta-da!” “I know that you never take me for one for surprises. But here’s one you never saw coming!”
He thought about the multiple ways in which he could open the subject, all of which sounded equally bad to him.
‘Well, I can always talk about it in the evening,’ so thinking, with a feeling of unreality Murthy left for work, the sound of bell ringing from the next door following him. For some reason the sound irritated him more than it did in the previous days.
Murthy felt almost relieved when someone expressed surprise at the fact that he lacked a shadow. He was seayed in the bus, a harsh morning light coming through the window pane, everyone casting their respective shadows except for Murthy.
The person who noticed this curious fact was sitting directly opposite to him. Murthy-who had temporarily forgotten about the aspect of the shadow, preoccupied in his mind with something at work, saw the man’s eyes go wide when he saw the shadowless patch of metal floor in front of Murthy.
The man looked to be in his fifties. It wasn’t just the small shovel which leaned against the man’s knee which made it clear to Murthy that he was a manual laborer-someone on his way to some construction work or the other (there’s always a building going up or coming down in Bangalore), it was also the wide staring eyes: a pair of blobs which flittered around as though nervous-the perennial expression of the underappreciated in a city where no one had time to appreciate the ones who build the city.
The man-who sat staring at the bus floor, as though hoping that at some point Murthy’s shadow will magically manifest itself remained silent. However, his eyes kept getting bigger and bigger when with each passing stop, the shadow remained adamantly non-manifest.
At one point, Murthy thought that the man’s eyes might pop right out of their sockets.
Murthy couldn’t stay to watch if it did happen though; his stop arrived before the man got out.
He got through the day without any of his colleagues getting any the wiser about the unique situation in which Murthy was in. ‘People don’t have any mind for shadows!” thought Murthy.
During the course of the day, he took some time to browse the net to see if there were anyone else who has experienced the particular predicament. The only references he could find were related to fiction, also an odd entry or two about something called Gornadas- shadow less entities from a legend.
As he was riding back home in a bus, he kept looking at those around him-to see if anyone would notice him, acknowledge the peculiarity of the situation-give me what is my due, he thought.
For the first time in many decades, Murthy actually felt like he was somewhat special. He was beginning to warm up to his new situation.
The bulbs that lit the corridor outside his door was harsh-the light that spilled from them looked more solid that anything-like a wall of yellow. The door to the house was closed but Murthy could hear sound coming from within- the sound of gunfire from the television.
“Naren is watching the television. The kid never has anything better to do,” Murthy muttered.
He pretended to himself that he was angry at his son for this but of course, such a feat was actually beyond him. Saraswathy has prayed for over a decade, and the couple had seen more than a few doctors to have a child.
And so what if the child spent more time watching people shooting at each other than spend time with his parents? A child is a child is a child.
Murthy removed his shoes, was quite amused at the fact that the footwear cast its independent shadow once it was removed from his feet. ‘Well, look who is here?” he said to the shoes’ shadows, smiling at the thought. For a second he wondered if he was going insane-should one be this amused in a situation like this?
‘Well, it’s not like I can consult my ancestors and learn from them. Even if they were still alive, they wouldn’t know anything about it, would they?’ At the thought, he felt another wave of laughter rising in him-this one louder than before.
It was while he was trying to suppress the laugh by pressing his hand to his mouth that Lelitha from next door came out of her home. She was dressed in a peach coloured long robe. A thin silver necklace was the only ornament on her body, except for the studs on her ears. The necklace ended in her mangalsutra.
‘The wall in our room is getting damp,” she said without preamble. “Perhaps there’s a leak in your bathroom?” The words were spoken in the most neutral tone imaginable to Murthy. She might as well have never seen him before.
Her bland attitude washed away the laughter from him. ‘I pity the husband who has to live with this woman every day,’ thought Murthy, at the same time presenting her with a smile -the most amicable smile you can think of.
But before he could tell her ‘As far as I know, there exists no leak in any of the bathrooms or anywhere in the room but since you asked me, I would look into it first thing’ (which was what he intended to say, in a slightly sarcastic tone) , Lelitha’s eyes strayed to the ground, perhaps sensing something was amiss.
And unlike most people whom Murthy passed by on the streets today and yesterday, she did figure out what was amiss.
However, unlike the labourer in the bus, Lelitha didn’t stay silent. In fact, almost immediately as she saw that Murthy lacked a shadow, she began screaming. Like someone may scream at the sight of knife wielding maniac rushing towards you as you are coming out of a elevator.
How can so much noise come from someone so thin? was all that Murthy could think of as the sound of her screaming made many a curious neighbor-and this being the time when people return from work, there were many in their homes, opened their doors and came out to investigate.
Then, as the screaming continued, they began to walk closer towards the source of the commotion. Some of them were curious to know what exactly the woman was shouting -they had identified the woman as the one who moved into 13B recently, the one who always wore a long robe like she was the priestess of some cult. But what was she shouting at Murthy?
‘Gornada!,” that’s what she was shouting. “You are a gornada!” she said, pointing a long(well-manicured) finger at Murthy, the red nail polish a symbol of the most potent accusation. Lelitah’s husband- a man whose name Murthy kept forgetting though they had talked to each other on multiple times, came running to the door. He was wearing a pair of shorts with a towel draped around his neck-he was in the bathroom apparently, thought Murthy, wondering why at this moment he was thinking of such trivial things.
Oh, God, am I actually going mad!,he thought.
“Gornada! He’s a Gornada!” the woman was telling her husband who looked almost as lost as anyone who was assembled there.
“What’s happening?” said Saraswathy who had also arrived at the scene, along with Naren who looked at his father and then at the lady next door who, in her heightened state of agitation looked more fit to be in a Hollywood horror film than in the real world.
“See, see..there are no shadows!” Lelitha told her husband. And many a pair of eye lowered towards the ground. A couple of moments of tense silence in which the assembled tried to process what exactly they were looking at. A collective gasp went up when the truth of the matter sank in.
Murthy turned towards his wife and saw her looking at him as though he were a stranger. A few among the assembled pulled out their cell phones, pushed through the crowd for a better view and took pictures and recorded videos. “See..see.. he is a Gornada!” Lelitha told her husband again, and this time the husband, and along with him the crowd, nodded. As though they knew all along what a Gornada was, they were only lacking in the proof.
Standing under the glare of all the myriad eyes, Murthy felt like a culprit.
But I didn’t do anything! ,he wanted to scream. A buzz of murmurs ensued when many among the assembled discussed among themselves about the phenomenon, as though Murthy were not there. The neighbors, in Murthy’s mind coagulated to a single mass- an organism that buzzes and does nothing else.
“We must have him out of here!” the relative silence that fell after Lelitha’s screaming and shouting was filled by the woman herself, who now looked at everyone assembled there, one after the other, as though she was personally appealing to each one of them to help evacuate the Gornada, which indeed was what she was doing.
Her words had the effect of Murthy walking into his home quickly, the leather office bag slung across his shoulder beating against his thigh keeping in rhythm to the quick pace of his walk. Sraswathi, who looked hesitant just for a moment, followed him in, pulling Naren along in the process, shutting the door behind her with a loud thwap!
“We must get the Gornada out! Deaths will happen around a Gornada!” she could hear Lelitha speaking-either to her husband or the assembled neighbors or both. Saraswathi wasn’t sure what made her more scared-the fact that her husband was shadow-less or the distinct edge of paranoia in Lelitha’s voice.
The arrangements for the trip were made in a very short time. Murthy wasn’t really a huge fan of smartphones-thought about it as a ‘unit-full of distractions with some utilities thrown in.’ The only reason he had one was because he got one last year as a gift from the company he worked for-on completing 10 years with them.
But now, when it came to making travel trips, he found his smartphone most useful. From finding an ideal place to making the cab booking, everything was done in under 15 minutes-a quarter of an hour in which Murthy kept listening for the calling bell.
“Where are we going?” asked Saraswathi when her husband asked her to pack a bag. “Pack just clothes and stuff. We are going away for just four or five days.”
When Sarasu enquired as to why this urgent trip, his first impulse was to laugh. But he calmly explained to her the situation-there’s a fair chance that the videos and images which his naeigbours took could go viral. And even if it didn’t, it will generate enough interest to have the media at his door. “And I don’t want to be here when they arrive. If I have learned one thing in my 50 years on earth, it’s that the reason India as a concept doesn’t exist anymore is because of the Indian media.”
Murthy-someone who wanted to join the army when he was young(he couldn’t as God didn’t give him the requisite height) was given to such passionate proclamations about the nature of the state every now and then. But Sarasu certainly was surprised that he would be thinking like that at a time like this.
The surprise, more than anything else made her obey her husband’s demand. She packed a bag for herself and Naren. They both got dressed. Sarasu couldn’t help but think how great it would have been if Naren would get dressed this fast every day when he had to go to school.
“Okay, let’s go! The cab is here!” said Murthy as soon as his wife and son were assembled at the living room where he was pacing nervously up and down, up and down, up and down like a pendulum on hyperdrive.
“So, papa, are you really going to go viral?” It was the first time that Naren has said anything since Lelitha alerted folks to the situation at hand. There was an edge of admiration in the boy’s voice at the possibility of virility, an admiration that gleamed in his eyes.
Murthy didn’t know when was the last time his son had looked at him so admiringly.
He didn’t say anything though. He had no time, they simply had to get out.
There was no one outside the door-he was half expecting some nosy neighbor to be around. But it was almost an hour since Lelitha made the scene and also it was dinner time..they have better things on their platter to absorb their attention than what happened to Murthy, at least for now.
Murthy locked the door and pocketed the keys, his family followed him as he walked the corridor towards the landing-their apartment was on the first floor, taking the stairs would take them to the ground floor faster than waiting for the lift.
Murthy was happy that the door to Lelitha’s was shut. But once the three of them had passed, the door opened and Lelitha came out, closely followed by her husband. Lelitha looked apprehensively at Murthy, like one would eye an angry barking dog. She soon turned her attention towards Saraswathy and said, all wide eyes and rapid breaths, “Where are you going?” She didn’t wait for Saraswathy to respond.
“Please don’t go. It’s never safe to be with a Gornada!” She looked at Murthy rather apprehensively, as if worried whether her words had offended him.
There was nothing on his face that told her so. There was just impatience-he wanted to get away, that’s all.
Saraswathy, quite at a loss for words simply shook her head and started moving towards her husband once again, gently pushing her son onwards.
“Please, at least, leave the child with us. You don’t have to kill the poor child!” said Lelitha, her hand instinctually going to her own tummy where a new life was in the process of becoming.
The note of desperation in her voice was unmistakable which made Saraswathi hesitate. “Sarasu, are you going to stand there and listen to what this stupid woman says!” Murthy was unable to contain his anger anymore.
“There’s no need for such language!” said Lelitha’s husband.
Saraswathi sent another glance in her neighbour’s direction. Then, along with her husband and son, she walked out of view, far beyond where they could hear the sound of Lelitha’s shudders.
“What exactly happened?” Saraswathi asked once they were in the car, as though there was a perfectly logical explanation for what had happened.
Murthy simply raised his head and looked at her, the sudden tiredness which overcame his eyes telling her that the question is, for all practical purposes pointless.
They rode in silence. The driver of the cab wasn’t apparently a music fan for the radio wasn’t on. Or maybe he is fed up with all the clamour which comes out of it, thought Murthy, suddenly feeling weary of the modern society which pushes out so much information-data into the public domain, including through the radio but never any relevant info when you need it.
For instance, he was unable to find any good information about his condition from browsing the net, could he?
At the thought he began to laugh.
“Why, what’s happening?” said Saraswathy, sounding alarmed.
Murthy shook his head, trying his best to bring the laughter under control, succeeding in it only after a couple of minutes. The driver-a young dark skinned man with pockmarks on his skin like craters on the moon, looked at the rear view mirror. Murthy, now no more laughing but holding a straight face caught his eye. He looked for accusation in the young man’s eyes but there was only curiosity. The driver looked away.
Naren, who was browsing the net on his father’s smartphone reported from the seat beside the driver, “I don’t think you have gone viral yet, papa!,” sounding rather despondent.
“And thank god for that!” Murthy said, sounding more tired than he felt.
The ‘Yoga retreat’ was tucked away among the hillocks surrounding Ramanagaram-not far from Bangalore but far enough, thought Murthy. He was standing at the small balcony adjoining the ‘Pranayam’ area where people practiced pranayama every day at dawn-the management was not too creative when it came to picking names, apparently.
The view was impressive- a verdant land which stretched all the way to meet the distant mountains, the clouds beyond making dynamic images on the screen of the sky- an old man’s version of a television show. The clouds also meant that the sun wasn’t shining bright-virtually everything remaining shadowless, Murthy being like everything else he could see-his natural state restored, at least for the time being.
“Nice place, isn’t it?”
Murthy was startled enough by the voice to jump slightly. But the man whose voice was responsible for the jump barely noticed. He was a tall man-just above 6 feet and Murthy stood a few heads shorter in relation. The man was also looking out at the landscape lighting a cigarette.
“I know that you are not supposed to smoke cigarette here,” he said, smiling slyly at Murthy-the only two people on the balcony, or in the entire pranayama area which comes alive only in the mornings. “Did you also come here so that you can smoke one?” he added.
No, I came here because I wanted to be in a place where you cannot get a phone signal. Where the only connection with the outside world was the emergency phone with the management-that, and the vehicle they have for emergency transit. Where no viral content or news would catch anyone’s sight.
This was what passed through Murthy’s mind but what he said was another truth: “No, my wife and son are lying asleep. We reached here pretty late last night and were able to sleep only by early in the morning,” he added as an explanation, more out of nervousness than anything else. He wasn’t feeling all that comfortable talking to a stranger-especially one who wore a pair of sunglasses-if you cannot see a man’s eyes,how can you know what’s on his mind?
The man now turned towards Murthy. Taking a couple of drags on his cigarette, he walked towards him. “I also came here with the wife,” he said, “In fact she was the one who likes yoga. I am not much into it. What about you?” The man, even though he looked to be in his late forties talked like a young man, someone who was in his first decade of marriage, before the faculties of the body started giving signs that the idea of old age and death are more than abstract concepts.
“Neither me nor my wife actually do yoga. We came here just for the quiet,” said Murthy, forcing a smile on to his face and quickly looking away, hoping that this will discourage the man from talking further.
But then, the man spoke the words which he dreaded hearing. “I am sorry, but do I know you?”
Murthy tensed, feeling his entire body going rigid with tension that verged on the irrational. Even if this person identifies him somehow, what’s the big worry?, he told himself. But such self-questioning didn’t really help him in any way.
“I don’t think so,”
The three simple words didn’t seem to appease the stranger though. He took off his glasses and now looked at Murthy with open fascination-the kind of fascination one would reserve for a three legged ape in a freak show, thought Murthy.
The stranger looked him up and down, his hooked nose quivering as though trying to sniff out the difference between the person who stood in front of him and the rest of humanity.
“You are…you are that person! The one without shadows!”
Now that the words were out of the man’s mouth, Murthy no more felt tense. The apprehension was now replaced with an electric tickling that passed through his spine like an eel through a watered tunnel. The surge of electricity-or something very similar to it spread through his body, navigating his blood streams like a boat would the canals of a city with interconnected waterway. It’s destination-somewhere outside of his body.
No, not just somewhere- it was making its way towards the centre of his chest and from there shoot out to the other man’s body.
The man was saying, “I saw the video this morning and it was so unbelievable! How is it possible! Are you like David Blaine!”
But Murthy didn’t hear anything that he said. He had ears just for the steady buzz of the electric waves that passed through his body, a steady stream which now swirled at a dizzying speed and revolved around the center of his heart.
Fascinatingly enough, Murthy felt his heart welling up with the emotion of joy. Intense, uncontainable. He recognized the electric current as the manifestation of his anger- anger at the man who stood in front of him, because he was different from him, a shadowless man against one who had an identity in this world.
He wanted the anger to destroy the man, Murthy realized. In a hand to hand combat, the man would easily overpower him. Not only was he bigger and taller, he was also younger. But such advantages, when stacked up against the simple fact of the surging electricity within him, didn’t stand a chance.
The man whose lips were twisted in a lopsided grin, opened his mouth. He was only able to let out one word though before the stream of pulses left Murthy’s body and landed on his. The word was “But”, the very last word the man would speak on this earth.
The sky remained shrouded with clouds but down below, on the balcony of the small yoga retreat somewhere north of Ramanagara, there was a burst of light as though a fragment of the sun presently fell down on some hapless soul. The soul in question being a man whose body quivered uncontrollably, at times being lifted clean off his feet beforegetting deposited back on the earth, a red orb of light covering him, affording more heat than light.
But his skin didn’t melt from all the heat. Instead it was his innards that were melting-like his outer covering was a container and all that’s inside food to be heated in an oven.
Murthy watched fascinatedly as the man turned literally into pulp right in front of him, He was happy for the fact that he wasn’r screaming- the tongue being one of the first organs in the man’s body which was reduced to a semi-liquid mass. But Murthy himself was laughing, not caring if the sound brought there some curious person-whose eyes will be greeted by a sight most unholy.
The man trembled, particles of brain oozed out of his ears . The deterioration continued from the head to the torso and his upper body crumbled like a piece of old cloth under the pressure of time.
Then went his legs which fell to the ground like coiled rope-only the rope was made of flesh, with splotches of tendrils and muscles covering it for decoration.
Murthy continued laughing for another couple of minutes. Until the red light began to lift from the dead gooey mass of flesh and bones which lied on the floor in front of him. The light was sucked into the air-a sound like the ruffle of wings accompanied the disappearing act.
Along with the light vanished the stream of electricity that played like a child on a rampage through a toy store in Murthy’s body. Murthy looked around, as if he suddenly found himself on an alien planet and was trying to remember how he came to be there.
The sight of what was once a man-lying on the floor, the broken sunglasses and the red t-shirt and the shorts perhaps a better indicator that the thing-mangled like a stalk of sugarcane crushed under a machine once used to be a man, than any of the flesh that was still there.
The balcony and the floor which overlooked the wide landspace was still empty. Some people would come to do pranayama in the evening-a twilight when the ‘frequency’ of the body would be in tune with that of the earth, or so said the brochure which was given him by the receptionist when he checked in-the one which explained all the facilities in the retreat.
Frequency. Murthy felt panic mixed with a surge of laughter rising in him at the thought of that word. It was some sort of frequency which killed this man, he thought. A frequency for which I was responsible, though maybe I wasn’t in control of it.
“What’s happening to me?” he said to himself. He pressed the palms of his hands against the sides of his head to stop the mad throbbing which started there.
“What’s happening to me?” this time the question was delivered as a mere murmur but its sound reverberated ever so loudly within the chamber of his heart.
As if in answer to the question, the clouds parted at that moment and let some sunlight to fall on a piece of the earth- a portion that included where Murthy stood immobile like a slave awaiting his master’s command.
The touch of sunlight on his flesh-where it was exposed to it, felt good-offering a counter to the numbing cold which was fast covering him from the inside.
Lowering his gaze he saw no shadow where it should be.
Nothing has changed seems to be the answer.
And yet, something has changed, he told himself, and walked, each step coming faster than the preceding one as he moved towards the room where he could wake his sleeping wife and child up, so they could get out of there.
Close circuit camera. That was what Murthy was thinking about as he was driving. He hadn’t really seen any CCC in the balcony but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one wasn’t there.
“Now, can you tell us what happened, papa!” Naren spoke from the seat behind.
Murthy shifted the gear-it was rather rusty but he managed. He accelerated. The car- a peacock green Eon wasn’t exactly at the top condition but what could one expect from rental cars?
Murthy had told the resort people that there has been a family emergency-he came to know about it because he has a satellite phone. He declined their offer to take him and his family back to wherever in the city they wanted to be.
“No, you can just drop us off at a car rental and I will take it from there. The emergency involves a death in the family. The person is already dead, so there is no reason to rush too much either,” he added as an explanation.
“Papa, what happened!” Naren said again, the boy’s whining-like sound grated on his nerves.
“I will tell you, Naren! Just shut up for now!” Murthy shouted. He was a very gentle father. In fact, he got frequently taunted by his wife for being “too mellow with the child”-buying him chocolates when he had more than his share and not admonishing him even when he scored poorly in the exams.
But Murthy couldn’t afford any of that mellowness now. He needed to think and he needed some silence to do it in.
First of all, the basic question-where are they going? The retreat authorities would find the pulpy mass of flesh and bones sooner or later, and when they do, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to join the dots that link Murthy to the mess. But in the absence of documentary evidence, no one would be able to prove that a mere man could kill someone like that. It would take a very special sort of machine to do that, Murthy thought.
A machine without shadows? he further thought and it was all he could do to stifle a laughter-he didn’t want to scare his family. God only knows that they were freaked out enough.
Saraswathi initially thought that someone did die, but her question as to who was it in the family who passed away-was it one of their parents, from old age, or perhaps Murthy’s cousin in Dehradun, the alcoholic?, ended after a while, once Murthy began driving not towards Bangalore but in the opposite direction, towards Mysore. As far as she knew, no one in either of their families lived in Mysore.
Murthy appreciated his wife for staying silent though from the tensed appearance of her face which he glimpsed in the mirror every now and then, he surmised that she was as much eager to know about what’s happening as his son -though unlike the latter, she wasn’t being vocal about it.
Murthy was startled by the sound of his son’s voice. Naren now leaned forward in his seat, his lips were now mere inches away from his father’s ear, “Tell me, what’s happening! You said you will tell us when we were in the car! Tell us! Tell us! Tell us!” He began beating on the back of the driver’s seat.
The tickle of electricity passed through Murthy’s spine. The anger coming awake from its dormant state like an animal stirred from its slumber.
Pulling the car to a stop by the curb, Murthy said, “I need to get some water,” getting out of the car, doing it while he was still in control.
But even as he took the first steps towards the nearest bakery-“Swagath Bakers and confectioners”-said the board with a logo of a closed palm, he knew that the anger was still inside him, like a small storm with a mind of its own-ready to wreak havoc in whichever direction that it wanted to move in.
Even the rush of cold water down his throat didn’t do anything to quell the fearsome anger. He turned around and saw the two faces staring out of the car’s windowpane-one clearly a picture of concern-that of his wife’s while the other a representation of anger, anger at being kept in the dark.
The latter only made Murthy even more angry.
“Here, have some water. It’s unusually hot today,” Murthy said, slipping a bottle of cold water into his son’s hand as he got back in the car.
“I need Coke!” Naren said.
Murthy put on the seatbelt and put the car in motion. He wished they would build self-driving cars fit for the Indian roads soon enough-he didn’t feel like driving, just wanted to lay back and think. Should he be running, or should be go back home? And even if he ran, how far can he ran with his wife and son in tow!
“I want Coke!” Naren shouted again.
“We will stop for lunch somewhere in half an hour. Then you can have Coke!” said Murthy. Murthy had ignored the previous shout, hoping that it would be over with it.
Perhaps I am a bit too mellow with him after all!
“No, I want Coke and not water!” the bout shouted again, beating on the back of Murthy’s seat again. “First, you wouldn’t tell us what’s wrong and now you won’t buy me a Coke! I shouted after you to buy Coke when you were going to the bakery!”
“Have the water now, da! Papa will buy you a Coke later,” Sarawathi ran a hand down the child’s back, a gesture that didn’t do anything to appease the boy who kept shouting. “You don’t tell us anything, papa! Even the fact that you have no shadow, we had to find out when a neighbor found it! And now you don’t even listen to what I am saying! I want a Coke! I want a Coke! I want a Coke!”
The atmosphere, as Murthy had noted was rather hot. The fact that the AC didn’t work in the car didn’t help either-you could roll the windows down as much as you want but the heat would rush in as much as it liked to.
“Stop it, Naren!” that was Saraswathi
“Stop it!” This time, it was Murthy, who felt like he was standing on the edge of a volcano.
Neither of the parents could curb the boy’s enthusiasm for shouting though, which if anything only kept rising.
“Coke!Coke!Coke!I want coke!”
It didn’t take long for Murthy’s irritation to mutate into anger and the anger to spurge through his spine like an eel. He summoned all his willpower to keep the stream from going out of his body. But everything happened in too short a time, accompanied by the irrational joy of defeating an ‘other’-someone with a shadow, which in this instance Murthy found to be grotesque.
Once the rage abated and with it the buzzing that rang inside his ears like so many electrons with mouths, he could hear but one thing-the sound of his wife screaming. The car, Murthy found was no more moving-he had parked it safely on the side of the road, the beginning of a jungle edging it on this side.
Beside himself, Murthy turned around in his seat. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see what was on the back seat. But he had to. He had to…he needed to know what happened to his dear boy, the one whom he hasn’t ever even beaten with a stick in his life.
He was sitting there beside his mother. For a minute, Murthy was able to convince his mind that it could discard all facts other than that the boy was still seated-without any support. It means he is still alive, doesn’t it? Forget about the things that were even now dripping down his eye sockets, starting with the eyeballs which hung from two thin and long tendrils, forget also the fact that the boy’s right ear looked like it was caved in, or that the entire left half of his face was bloated up which pushed open his mouth. And out of the mouth was pushing out what appeared to be an intestine-like an alien child coming out of a womb.
Though it mayn’t be an intestine-Murthy was no expert in human anatomy-it could be the long tip of a lung for all he knew.
Yes, Murthy was able to discard such details for about a minute. But then, the laughter rose-which matched in pitch to the sound of his wife screaming in terror and sadness, the odd mixture rising from a car parked on the side of a highway with only a minimal traffic.
His chest hurt with the laughter- a pain shot through his ribcage which made him laugh even more.
Unbuckling he pushed open the car door, and the laughter rang out of him like it was another person inside him doing it-independent of its host’s desire or will. Without losing a moment Murthy ran down beyond the edge of the road, pushing apart the wild bushes of the forest with his bare hands, not minding the pain that the cuts presented, leaving behind him an insane laugh trail.
The table lamp had a warm glow which never failed to please Lelitha. She would sometimes switch it on even if she wasn’t reading, pleased with the fact that there were simple pleasures-like an orangish glow in the dark that would make life’s bad moments a little more bearable.
She had discovered it when she lost her first child in the womb, when she would lie in her bed, inconsolable but imagining the glow of the bulb to be the soul of the lost child, communicating with her through the medium of photons.
The loss of the child also marked the loss of the religion to which she was born. Before that she would read texts like the Vishnu Sahasranama and the Ramayana under the glow of the lamp, her bedside reading allowing her to dream of communion between the jeevatma and the paramatma-between herself and her husband, or maybe between her ambitions for the future and their fruition.
But there was nothing in the loss of a child for no mistake on anyone’s part which warranted the existence of a merciful God.
A few months of void-living in the absence of a religion for the first time since she could remember, and then one day while browsing the net, she happened upon the “Book of forthcoming.” Author unknown, date of origin unknown though from the language- an earlier form of Egyptian, scholars think it was written sometime in the eight century BC somewhere along the Mediterranean coast.
At first she just went through it out of mere curiosity-what was this odd book listed under the “Religion” section in one of the lesser popular book seller’s website? But the more she read, the more it made sense, for it was not a religion of god but one of changes. It spoke not about miracles but of phenomena-perpetuated by the earth or the universe, never really beyond the realm of the natural-like how a group of tiny atoms when structured one way would make a human and put another way, a cardboard box. The phenomena described in the book were nothing short of magical though.
The book, she had open on her lap now.
She was running a thin long finger across the pages of the book, over lines which had gained particular significance since she found that the neighbor was a Garnada-maybe the first of them, maybe not, she couldn’t be sure.
Beside her, she felt her husband stirring in his sleep. He never really understood what the Book of forthcoming was all about, even when she explained to him the various philosophies and significance of the multiple rituals.
He never said it in so many words but she knew it from the way his eyes would be glazed over, as though he were detached, every time she spoke about it.
“What is it?,” she heard him say. A look to the alarm clock on the bedside table and he added, “It’s 2 in the morning. What are you doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep. Kept thinking about that Garnada,” Lelitha spoke in a calm voice, a voice resigned to fate. Her eyes were still on the book though. “Things are changing again. For here it says, ‘More divisions will be put in the path of man. The shadow less will fight the ones with shadow. Yet another contention between brother and sistes, man and wife, father and son. One more reason for the race to cave in on itself, to embrace its own destruction-a self-made evacuation from the world. And man will turn to Garnada-the shadowless, when the time is ripe.”
She raised her face as slowly as she closed the book, looked into the half-dark which submerged her husband.
“The time, it seems, is ripe now.”
He nodded at her words, though his face, immersed somewhat in the dark wasn’t clearly visible to her.
“Come to sleep now,” he said.
She nodded, put the book away on the bedside table with a sigh.
He turned over and stretched an arm out. After turning the lamp off, she lied down, placing her head on the outstretched arm.
‘You know it’s not good for the baby if you don’t sleep properly?” he whispered.
She nodded. “Yes, I know. I will try to sleep properly. Hope we won’t come in touch with any gornadas.”
Her husband didn’t say anything to that. Once the baby is born, she will be okay, he thought .Then she won’t be talking about all these silly things..
But even as he was thinking so, somewhere in the darkness of the room, his shadow was leaving.