Red Riding Chair

There were many things still unclear about the world in the 8 year old’s brain- but the question of whether chairs should be talking in a human tongue wasn’t one of them.

Not that this chair talked loudly or anything, like some of his friends back home. In fact, it was more of a whisper than a real talk but it was enough to make the hairs on his body  stand on end.

Sarath has felt there was something special about the chair the first time his eyes fell on it. And his were the eyes that first saw the chair in the house. Both his mother and father had come to the house a couple of times before prior to deciding to rent the place. Sarath had abstained from going with them on those occasions since he hoped that that would make them finally see that he didn’t wish to move from his home in Kollam, the place where he was born and brought up.

Well, they didn’t see it that way. And it turned out that they haven’t seen the chair either, on any of the occasions they have been here before.

The chair itself looked the like the kind they use in a ceremony, like a wedding, with a red cushion and intricate woodwork at the head, the kind of chair in which the bride or the groom would sit. In fact, it reminded Sarath so much of the chairs he had seen used in his aunt’s wedding which happened two months ago.

The significant difference was in the stature- this one was at least a head shorter than the ones used in such grand occasions- in which chairs, and just about everything would be ordered precisely for the purpose of communicating grandeur.

**

The chair was in one of the two rooms on the first floor- a room which the family had decided would remain unused for the time being. There were two rooms on the ground floor as well, in addition to a small ante-room by the living room which his father said could be his study.

In other words, for a family of three, there were more than enough rooms.

His parents had insisted that he used one of the rooms on the ground floor- he could choose his and then they would choose theirs. “It would be totally fine even if you wanted the bigger room,” his mother had said.

But Sarath, even though asked repeatedly to re-consider the idea, stuck to his plan to use a room on the first floor. Stuck to it with so much vehemence that it surprised both his parents. Not even when last summer, when he insisted that he went with his friends on a one-day school trip even though he was running a slight fever was he this vehement.

The vehemence was also intended to convey the message that he still didn’t approve the idea of this move to another city. Sure, he has seen the movie ‘Bangalore Days’ when it came on the television. One of his friend’s elder brother studied in Bangalore and told them how cool everything was in the big city.

But Sarath wasn’t at all comfortable about moving to Bangalore-or any other place. He liked the house where grew up in- with the well in the backyard and a number of trees around. From the terrace of the house, he could see the roof of the Toyota assembling unit that was under half a kilometer away- and the biggest establishment around for miles. On some nights, the giant dome like air vents that kept revolving on the roof of the unit looked like living silver goblins dancing under the moonlight.

And he could hear the sound of the cows baying from the next compound- their next door neighbour, in fact, one of his father’s cousins, kept three cows and two goats. Hearing the sound of the cows, he would imagine that the silvery goblins were coming after them, which was why they bayed with fear.

The air of Kollam was mostly warm-even after rains the humidity would long keep the atmosphere from getting anywhere close to cold. One major attraction that many people who went to Bangalore to study or for work mentioned about the city was that the climate was pleasant.

“It would be much cooler there,” his father had said the day before they moved, seeing how glum he looked. “We would not even be staying in the city but in the outskirts, where there are flower orchards and vineyards. Your school is just a few kilometers from our new house-some fifteen minutes and you would be there. You would love it!”

“I won’t!” came the immediate reply from him, bringing with it a fresh bout of tears from his eyes.

He didn’t wish to move away from all his friends and relatives, from everything that he had held close to his heart, from the mango tree where he learned to climb(higher every day than the day before) and Kumaran uncle’s goat with whom he sometimes played and his school friend who were also his neighbours with whom he went on Sundays to bathe in the canal when the water was low..And a whole lot of things which he didn’t want to say goodbye yet.

Why was it so hard for his parents to get that?

**

The reason his parents couldn’t understand what Sarath took to be so simple a concept was economics.

His father- Saseendran Das ran a small ad agency in Kollam- the main business coming from flex spots that he rented out. However, what with the high penetration of mobile phones, many of his clients found advertising on social media more lucrative than putting up flex boards- the fact that most of his clients were small businesses made this even more relevant to Sassendran. The better region-wise targeting offered by such platforms like Facebook made it so much convenient for such businesses to reach their message to their intended audience and none else.

When he started the small agency more than a decade ago, Saseendran had plans to expand operations to Trivandrum as well. There were 7 employees when he began the shop. Ten years later, the only addition was one more employee- a young man he hired to do DTP works. Ten years later, the company still worked out of the small one room in a two storied building the ground floor of which was taken up by a printing press. The chug chug chug of the printing machine has long become the background score to those who worked in Saseendran’s office.

The decision to finally wind down the operations was made when one of their biggest clients- a garment shop with branches in Trivandrum, Pathanamthitta and Parasala left them for another agency. Even Saseendran, who has seen enough clients come and leave in his time was rather surprised by this. The client took the decision once their operations were handed over from one generation to the next. The scion of the family which controlled the garment business was someone with whom Saseendran evidently hadn’t created a good rapport.

This realization, unfortunately, he had only too late. For by that time, the client had already left.

But he didn’t decide to shut shop immediately. At the age of 38, he still had a lot of fight left in his heart, and hopes in his eyes about the future. The next few months were tough running though. His hopes for transforming the company into a digital-exclusive firm didn’t work out as planned either. Not because he was unable to find clients- there were plenty of clients to be had, who were rather attracted by the notion of doing ads by spending little-which was the key attraction of social media. The trouble was that the clients wanted to extend the idea of “spending little” into the realm of the fee for their ad agency as well.

Saseendran thought that they would come around to paying him more once they saw how well his online promotions on their behalf worked.

The promotions worked but they didn’t come around.

Saseendran was furious but the ferocity wasn’t something that he could show to his clients. The bottled up rage and frustration, combined with the steady deterioration of the agency eventually took a toll on him, making him feel like he was burnt-out, done.

But he couldn’t allow himself to be done. He had a family to think of.

**

The good news was that there was one client who stood with him throughout all this- a multi-outlet cake shop based in Bangalore. In fact, they were one of his earliest clients, the bakery owned by one of his school friends.

Once the decision was made to sell the company(he had to do it since he was already in debt), he told his last remaining client about it. In fact, he drove from Kollam all the way to Banaglore just to tell him this to his face- to thank him in person for sticking with him so long.

But the client surprised him by saying that if Saseendran were to continue doing what he did, he would be happy to retain his agency. In fact, he even proposed that he would help hook Saseendran up with some of the local businesses in Banaglore. “No big time players, since I too am not in that league.But I think there would be a few small businesses who might be interested in your services. The only problem is..they may not be interested in having an agency that’s all the way out in Kerala,” his friend had said.

It’s true that technology-driven communication has improved dramatically. However, there are still certain situations in which physical proximity plays in your favour.

While his agency in Kollam was up and running, the farthest client he has had was in Kottayam, hardly a two hour drive away. And clients liked to be showed that their agencies valued them enough to have someone go down and meet them in person, listen to their briefing for an ad, even though it could have been given over the phone. More importantly, you should ask them how they were doing, speak pleasantries with them in tones that re-affirmed that they were the boss.

Clients demanded those sorts of things without demanding them.

“Let me think about it,” was all the reply that Saseendran gave his friend.

And thought he did, hard and long. He thought of alternatives- of going elsewhere-maybe to the gulf and trying to find some work there. Some of his relatives were in the gulf, and they might be able to find him a job- to be tucked away behind the counter of some shop or another as a sales assistant or something, but one that would help him send home money every month.

But having spent a substantial time of his 38 years on earth running his own shows- before starting the ad agency, he used to own a small coffee shop and before that he ran a supply business of bringing bakery items- from well fried “murukkus” to the sumptuous(or not) laddus to wholesalers, he couldn’t take so easily to the idea of working under someone again.

A few months of field study during which time he also made couple of pitches to clients whom his friend gave him lead, and he was decided on shifting to Bangalore. They would need to set up a small office. His friend had found for him a place in the outskirts where they could stay.

The previous tenants- two carpenters wanted to move to the city so that they could get more work, so they were moving out.

Saseendran was looking for a place more in the city, so that when he started an office space proper, his place of residence would be close to it. But upon his friend’s insistence, he went to check out the place.

The first time he saw it, he knew that he would like to live there.

The place was way more spacious than he had imagined. It was in rural Bangalore- more importantly, a part of the rural Bangalore that was still unspoiled by development. The nearest house was a good half a kilometer away. Flowers stretched all the way till the eyes could see on the opposite plot of land- just one of the many floral orchards in the area. There were a few coconut groves which he has seen on the way there, and hills that were flanked with lakes with gentle curves. The sky felt considerably closer here than in Kerala.

Aside from these romantic aspects, there were two very pragmatic reasons which made him consider the house. One was the fact that some of the best schools in Bangalore were to be found in the area- the latest trend was to teach kids in schools built on land removed from the clamour of the cities the kind of which the kids would probably grow up to build. The farther removed the school was from the city, and if the school’s name has the word “International” in it, the more expensive it would be.

But he was okay with that. He was not going to give his only child anything lesser than the best he could: after all, the entire reason for the move to Bangalore was to make things better-not just for himself but for his family.

As for the house being away from the city, he has an art director and copywriter who would work for him from Trivandrum. He would co-ordinate with them remotely. For the time being, at least, he could do that from the house. Once their client base got bigger, he would rent a small office space in the city. At worst, he would have to travel two hours every morning and evening.

But hell, if the drive were to come home to this place, he thought, he wouldn’t mind it so much.

And once his wife- Charulatha was brought to see the place and she too thought how lovely it was,(and how the rent they were asking was so reasonable considering how spacious the house was), Saseendran settled the matter soon enough.

Two things he couldn’t have foreseen at that point: his son remaining morose for so long(after all, the shift was finalized more than two months ago) and the kid finding a chair in the house that whispered in his ears.

**

The first time he saw the chair, Sarath called his father up. Hid dad came running up the stairs, mistaking the excitement in the boy’s voice to be panic- perhaps, he has stumbled and fell?

“Why is that chair fixed to the ground, daddy?” he said, pointing a tiny finger at the iron clamps which fixed the chair to the ground.

“I don’t know,” said Sasendran, walking up to the chair, inspecting it closely. “In fact, I don’t remember seeing this one here before.”

Charulatha also came up to the room from the kitchen where she was preparing some fried chicken-extra crispy just the way Sarath liked it. She hoped to up her son’s mood by preparing all his favourites for him.

Judging from the slight look of alarm on her face, she too shared her husband’s apprehension upon hearing the boy’s voice.

Later, Saseendran asked her if she remembered seeing the chair in the room when she came to visit the house about a month ago.

“I don’t remember seeing it. But back then, there was still stuff in this room- stuff belonging to the previous tenants,” she said. “Maybe we missed it because of all the other things.”

“Yes..” said Saseendran, looking at the chair again, though he didn’t sound too convinced. Surely, a chair like this-which was bigger than the average sofa would be hard to miss, especially given the deep red of the cushion- a colour which brought to mind images of pooled blood sparkling under the sun- something he remembered seeing after a road accident he had a few years ago.

When he looked for Sarath again, he was gone- back into his room where he spent almost his entire day playing a dinosaur game on his handheld.

**

It was on the second day of their stay in the house that he heard the chair calling out to him for the first time. It sounded like his own voice, like how it would have sounded back in his room at his home in Kollam.

One of the first things that he did once he entered his room in the new house was to talk to himself- nyt because he was in the habit, but because he wanted to hear what his voice sounded like in this alien space.

He had noticed how the timbre of their tones were different when his parents spoke inside the room. The room was more spacious- at least doubly so than the room in his home in Kollam. And the neighbourhood was awe-inspiringly quiet- the silence broken only occasionally by the passage of a tractor on its way to a farm, or a tempo bearing workers to and from a farm.

“Hello Sarath. How are you? Why are you here? What is the name of that flower- the yellow coloured ones that you see in the land opposite? Do you think that the teachers at the new school would teach you the name? And do you think you would get to like the new school if they taught you that?” Such questions he threw at himself, keeping his voice quiet enough so that this parents wouldn’t hear.

He wasn’t expecting himself to come up with answers to the question. In fact, he wasn’t even completely conscious of the questions he raised, his mind was more on the sound that they made than their meaning. And yes, as he expected, he did sound different in this room- at least, he felt so. His voice sounded more hollow in this larger space.

He was lying in his bed, helping a baby dinosaur maneuver through some dangerous terrain so that it could reach its mother on the other side, when he heard the voice of the chair. Drawn towards the voice like a susceptible kid to a particularly bright hued candy in a store, he walked to the other room-bare except for the one chair.

He could hear the sound of something boiling and pans and plates being moved from downstairs- the signs of his mother doing her thing in the kitchen. But there was no problem in hearing the chair’s words over those small noises: “Sarath, come here. Let’s go for a ride..”

Sarath wasn’t sure what the chair-fixed to the ground as surely as a tree is to the earth-meant by a ride. But he was curious enough to try and find out. Growing up, he has been given many ‘directives’ for his own protection by his parents- from “Don’t talk to strangers if anyone comes up to you in school” to “Never over-indulge on candies or they would make you sick.” Sarath, being the good kid that he was, followed such advices more or less all the time.

But as far as he could remember, nothing has ever been told about interactions with a talking chair. No rules have been laid down. In the absence of protocols to follow, he made one of his own, which was to give in to his curiosity. Slowly moving closer to the chair, he took a seat, the cushion somewhat harder than he imagined.

A few seconds passed. He heard the sound of his mother in the kitchen still. He saw nothing but the open door in front of him. He wasn’t sure what he expected- for the chair to simply begin to move, with him in it, going down the stairs and into the living room where the front door would magically open and out he would go, onto the road where the chair would take him down to someplace he has never been before- somewhere magical, somewhere he wouldn’t feel this morose and alone?

But the chair didn’t move. In fact, the stillness was total.

For even as he squirmed in the seat, Sarath couldn’t hear any creaking sound or anything of the kind. It was as though the chair, having done something incredible just moments ago by uttering human words suddenly decided to clam up.

“What a stupid chair,” Sarath muttered, feeling the hope for excitement fading from his heart. But just as he was about to get up , everything changed.

**

The first thing that changed was the quality of the air. From the blandness of the air in the room, the transformation was to a musty stuffiness- like a room that has remained shut for a long time. The sound of his mother in the kitchen too faded- to be replaced by an odd silence, the kind of silence that’s not the result of the absence of sound in the external environment but because of wool stuffed in your ears.

Looking around, Sarath found that he had indeed come to a different place- a wooden shed by the look of it, some 20 feet by 30 feet in dimensions. He could  some wood shavings on the floor, and what appeared to be a chair abandoned midway into the process of its creation.

He could see two windows- one on either side of the shed but they were both closed.

Most of the light that came in, entered through the lone panel of glass on the roof which was otherwise tiled. Looking ahead, he could also see the wooden door was opened a crack. A sliver of light held the promise of the bright outdoors.

Sarath was smack in the centre of the shed, the small rectangle of white light which came in through the glass panel falling on his head. Getting up and turning around, he saw that he has been sitting in a chair- similar to the one which promised a “ride” in the room, only a couple of heads taller.

He recognized what this shed was- his father did tell him about the shed in the backyard, the one which was built by the carpenters who were the previous tenants and which they didn’t bother taking down. But notwithstanding the recognition, the eeriness of a chair bringing him out from the house like this was palpable.

Taking his eyes away from the chair, he walked towards the door and pushed it open. The wooden door was heavier than he anticipated. It opened slowly under whatever little pressure he could apply. And as the sunlight hit his eyes, he squinted. He felt as though he was coming out after an awfully long time spent in a cave, in deep darkness.

He felt glad for the sunlight- like someone would feel with a good soak in the tub after a long tiring journey.

The shed, even though his father has said was in the backyard, was technically to one side of the house- the side which presently afforded Sarath the view of his mother in the kitchen through a window. It appeared as though she was washing some cut vegetables under the sink.

He thought how amusing it would be to walk up to the window and wave at her. Even better, if he could somehow attract her attention now, as he stood in front of the wooden hut the walls of which were somewhat moldy….  She would wonder how he happened to be out there when the only way out was through the kitchen door- the front door was always bolted too high for him to reach.

He couldn’t help but smile, envisioning the look of awe in his mother’s eyes.

But no matter how hard he waved or how animatedly he moved around, hopping on his legs or twirling his body, she wouldn’t look up. He would just have to walk closer to the window to catch her eye.

But he had taken just two steps when it occurred to him that something wasn’t right. At first, he couldn’t put a finger on it but he soon realized that something in his peripheral vision was sending him the wrong signal, or rather, the right signal in the wrong context.

For not far on his right stood a mango tree which wasn’t supposed to be there. The distance of more than 12,000 kilometers was somehow nullified for it was the same one in which he learned to climb, the one which held memories of tangy mango taste given and also a fair share of ant bites.

Sarath became so amazed by the sight of the tree that he forgot all about his plan to walk up to the kitchen window and amaze his mother. Instead, he turned and walked towards the tree, only to be greeted by an even bigger surprise.

For just as he turned around the corner of the house, he saw that the entire frontyard was changed. Gone was the view of the seemingly endless field of yellow flowers on the opposite side of the house and the dusty road. Instead, what he now saw was a black gate with the figure of two peacocks embedded in it- the same gate which had protected(as much as gates could protect) his home in Kollam.

Turning around, he beheld the front of the house-which now stood transformed. The porch with the wicker chair where his father used to sit and read books in the evening, the brown mat with the picture of a flower vase and the word ‘Welcome’ on it on the lowest of the three steps that he now climbed, and the door which was neatly divided into eight square sections- each containing a wood carved design of a rangoli.

Though Sarath was eager tp enter his dear home, his movement to push down the door handle was nonetheless tentative- after all, the house now belonged to someone else.

The ease with which the handle was pushed down was a familiar sensation and when he opened the door and saw the living room- with beige sofa and the bird cage in which was a stuffed parrot(his father was vehemently opposed to caging real birds) and the small statue of a dancing woman on the window sill( which was presented to his father by one of his ‘clients’)- it was all Sarath could do to keep from crying with happiness.

Everything was left in the same positions as he remembered when he used to live here- which wasn’t so long ago but still seemed far away in time. Indeed, it was as though the new owners had went to the pain of obtaining the exact same objects that the previous owners had had, and positioned them in the exact same places as before.

Sarath took but one step into the house when he heard Charulatha call out his name.

Slowly closing the door- as though not wanting to disturb anyone by the sound, he walked to the side of the house. His mother saw him out of the kitchen window this time. She gestured him to come in. “It’s time for lunch! I have made your favourite thoran!” she said, beaming a smile which was as radiant as the sun but which didn’t have much effect on her son.

But that didn’t mean that he was not willing to go back into the house. He hoped that the next time he went around to the front, it would have been restored so that he could get into this house- the one in Bangalore. With that hope, after noddi g his assent to his mother, he walked to the front only to find that it still belonged to the house in Kollam.

For the first time since he came out of the shed, panic descended on him, like an eagle’s shadow on an exposed snake.

He ran back to the side of the house, fearing that it might too have been transformed. He was glad to see that it was very much the same. More than that, he was happy to see the face of his mother framed in the window.

“Why  are you still out there?” said Charulatha. “It’s getting to be hot out. Come on in! Don’t let the food wait!” she added with a smile.

Sarath pointed towards the front of the house. He was about to try and explain to her that he couldn’t get in because the front door opened into their previous house when it occurred to him how absurd it was to explain to his mother something he couldn’t fully comprehend.

It would be like trying to explain photosynthesis to a classmate when he didn’t know himself.

A new kind of dread of loneliness came over him now. Whereas before, the loneliness he dreaded was the one brought on by being cut off from a land and everything that he has known there- a geographical isolation, this time it felt more biological. And it was way more horrific.

For it was the dread of being cut off from his mother and father which had his blood run cold all of a sudden. He wished the windows didn’t have bars on it- that way, he could have climbed in through it.

Seeing him still standing outside, his mother’s forehead wrinkled in a frown of enquiry.

The chair!, he thought. It was the chair that brought him out, and so it could take him back as well! All he had to do was run back to the shed and sit on the chair.

He was about to do that when yet another thought struck him- and when it did he all but hit him on the back of the head for not thinking of it before.

He now ran towards the backdoor- hoping that he wouldn’t be met with any surprise there.

He wasn’t. He pushed open the green painted grilled door with much strength, making the door grate on its hinges. Without bothering to shut the door after him- for fear that if he spent any more time away from his mother, the back of the house would prevent him entry, he ran in straight towards Charulatha and buried his face in the folds of her stomach.

“What is it?” said Charulatha with a smile, but still somewhat concerned.

Sarath slowly raised his head too look at her. He shook his head with the same slowness  before unclamping his arms that were thrown around her waist- he didn’t wish to show any sign of affection to his mother: she too was in compliance with her father in their move to Bangalore, wasn’t she?

Ironically enough, now that he was back inside the house and in her presence, the wish re-asserted itself. Taking two steps away from her, he said, “I am not feeling hungry.”

“But have at least a little, Sarath..” said Charulatha.

Sharath shook his head. “Maybe later,: he said.

Charulatha didn’t insist. She knew only too well that he wasn’t exactly glad about this move to Bangalore. She also knew that she didn’t want to do anything to make him feel any grumpier- like insisting he eat when he said he wasn’t feeling hungry.

“Okay,” she said, “Maybe half an hour later?”

Nodding vaguely, Sarath exited the kitchen. Reaching the foot of the stairs, he planted his foot on the first of the steps.

Which was when he had a re-think.

If he went up to his room, maybe the chair would call out to him again..and there was a certain quality to the voice..a mix of desperation and seductiveness  which may make it hard for him to resist heeding the call.

Deciding that he didn’t want to be anywhere near the chair right now, he turned around and walked to the living room. Plopping on the sofa and grabbing the remote control, he brought the television to life and subjected himself to some numbing of the mind.

It felt good to him.

Charualatha, who was watching him all this time from the kitchen door, wondered if there was more to his oddity than his grumpiness at their moving houses.

**

“Just give him some time,  it’s been just a few days since we have been here. I guess once the school starts and when he makes friends, his moodiness would come down,” Sassendran said when Charulatha raised concerns regarding Sarath.

What he didn’t tell her was that now that they had made the move, doubts began to arise in his heart- Did he do the right thing by taking up residence in this house which was not exactly in the heart of the city? Was he rash in selling their house in Kollam so soon? Part of the reason for choosing this house, he acceded was the charm of an idyllic life lived in the countryside- something that usually is affordable only for the wealthy.

Part of the reason was that he wanted to prove- to himself more than anyone else, that even though financially they were in a tight spot at the moment, he could still give them a good life.

As though reading his mind, Charulatha said, “It’s a beautiful place that we live in, no doubt. Maybe, Sarath would warm to it. As you said, once he has friends, company, he would be fine..”

Judging by the tone of her voice, Saseendran knew that she was putting away her own apprehensions for the sake of supporting him. A wife is the strength of a man, just sa the strength of a good land is rain- that was what his father, a farmer, used to tell him. Now the old man was long gone, but his words remained in his heart.

He hugged his wife closer, planting a kiss on her lips. The night was cool but the mattress was drenched in their mingled sweat.

**

One thing that Sarath felt odd about this place was that the days could be warm but when the night came around, things cooled down pretty well.

So far, he has never woken up in the night because of the heat which overtook his body, making him sweat and dehydrated in the middle of the night- something that was very much usual when he was in Keraka-especially during the summers. And there was nothing worse to take away the charm of sleep than dehydration in the middle of the night.

Not that he was going to tell his parents that he enjoyed sleep much better now that he was in Bangalore. The closest he had come to telling his parents a good thing about the place was when he remarked during lunch the other day, when a bird sung in the most wonderful tones from somewhere close by, that this place had a lot more birds than their home in Kollam.

As for the chair, it has all but slipped from his mind, especially since it hasn’t called out to him after that one time. In fact, the more the number of days passed, the more he began to consider what happened as part of a dream- or a nightmare.

Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, leaving a somewhat burning trail on his skin. Having become bored with helping dinosaurs cross dangerous terrain in his video game, he has come out to play- if you could call beating trees withered by the summer play.

Part of the reason why he came out was the hope that his mother- who was dusting the wicker chair in the porch could see how lonely he was, ‘playing’ like this on his own. Ever since moving to the house, mother always spoke to him in even mellower a tone than she used to- something that told him that she wasn’t blind to his persistent moodiness.

Whether that would make his parents move back to Kollam or not- he wasn’t sure.

He stood a way from the house, by the side of the dusty road which took the farm workers to and from work. The sun’s rays trickled in through the gaps in the tamarind tree near which he stood, but those minor shafts were enough to make him sweat. Indeed, the heat was mounting so much was no one would think of stepping out of the house, unless there was some dire need.

And yet, there was someone else on the road, walking up from a distance towards where Sarath stood, or rather, to pass him by. Sarath didn’t see him, not until his mother called out to him. Charulatha, standing with the rag with which she was dusting the wicker chair, had a somewhat concerned expression on her face as he called out her son’s name.

“Sarath!” , she said, “Come on in. It’s getting too hot!”

Though he stood some good 200 yards from her, he could still make out that she wasn’t looking at him as he spoke. She was looking at some point behind him.

Getting curious, he looked back to see a man-looked to be in his late 40s- thick matter hair and penetrating gaze, fair skinned and a growth of few day’s worth of beard on his face, walking up the road. In fact, by the time Sarath turned to look at him, the man wasn’t more than a few yards from him.

Even though the man kept to the left fringe of the road-away from Sarath, he nonetheless kept his eyes on the boy as he walked. Even more unnerving was the smile- vague yet recognizable-that was on the lips which were somewhat blackened as though with prolonged habit of smoking.

He wore a shirt which was untucked, and a pair of blue denim. The sandals on his feet, sarath saw looked pretty new- in fact, they gleamed under the sunlight. A backpack, one strap of which was hung over his shoulder was black in colour, but didn’t have any spots of dust on it.

In other words, the man didn’t fit the description of an “unkempt stranger”- the kind which is dangerous, as per adult wisdom. But still, there was something about the man which unnerved Sarath- it was more than the sum of that odd smile(as though he knew something about the boy which the boy himself didn’t know) and the intense manner in which he looked at him. It was something undefinable which sent a shiver down your spine- like when you feel the gaze of an unknown person on your back, while you were in a strange place.

Judging by how she came half-running towards Sarath, his mother too shared his sense of apprehension. But even though Charulatha now stood beside her son, a hand resting on his shoulder, the stranger didn’t take his eyes off the boy, not until he had passed them by. The mother and son stood at the side of the road until the man disappeared around a bend in the road.

“Come on, let’s go in,” Charulatha said, her whispery voice a sign that she was still unnerved by the episode of the strange man.

But now that the man was gone, Sarath no more found unnerved.

“I want to play a while more,” he said.

“You can play later,” said Charulatha, assuming a soft yet firm tone.

“No, I want to play!” Sarath was equally firm. “I feel bored in the house. This is also boring but at least, this is different!” he added, beating with the withered stick he held in his hand, on a withered tree.

“No, Sarath, you must come in now! It’s too hot…and …and..” Charulatha’s eyes strayed towards the direction in which the strange man had disappeared. And I am too worried about something happening to you, she added in her mind.

But no matter how strong a tone she used, Sharat desisted, showing no inclination to put his mother’s mind at ease.

Indeed, his resistance grew so stout that Charulatha eventually lost her cool and planted a slap on his cheek- the sound of which resonated in the still air. In fact, the sound was so loud that even  Saseendran, who was at this point in the living room, discussing an artwork for a client over the phone with his art director, heard it.

“Give me a minute..I will call you back,” he said to the phone and ran out of the house.

“What? What happened?” he asked as he stepped out of the porch.

By the time he reached there, tears had begun pouring down the boy’s cheeks. Chaulatha stood by him, telling him that he was sorry.

It took more effort than convincing a client about an unconventional campaign for Saseendran to convince his son that he should come back in. “We would go for a ride in the evening. We would go for a movie.” he said, though Sarath hardly gave any sign that he heard it.

**

An hour later, when his mother-apologetic once again- called him to lunch, he said he wasn’t hungry. Turning over on his bed, he lied with his face buried in the pillow. Saseendran, who came with his wife, indicated to Charulatha that they better leave him alone. “For now. I would bring him to lunch some half an hour later,” he whispered to her.

But half an hour later, when he came up to his son’s room, the boy was not there. In fact, he was not to be found anywhere in the house.

**

There’s only so much time that you could lie with your face pressed to the pillow, especially when the pillow became fast drenched with the tears that kept coming in intervals.

When he turned over again, he saw that his parents were gone. Through the open door, he could see into the other room-diagonally opposite to this one. The railings of the stairs obstructed the view somewhat but he could still see the red chair. A bright rectangle of light came in through the window and fell right on it, as though the room was a stage and the chair a spotlit prop in the centre.

His father loved the arts-one of the key reasons why he got into advertising. Aside from movies and music concerts, he also took his family to the performance of a play whenever there was one. Sarath couldn’t say that he ever enjoyed plays as much as he did films- there were never any explosions or elaborate fight sequences as in the movies.

The ‘spotlit’ chair though reminded him of a stage, and for some reason, it looked to him as though he was the actor who was supposed to take the seat so the next act could begin.

He hasn’t thought of taking a seat in that chair after that indefinable experience he had with it the first time around. Indeed, he was afraid to take a seat again.

But such fears fell off in the face of what his mother did to him today. First, they took him away from his dear home, then they slapped him, just because he played in the outdoors.

Injustice was a word which he wasn’t familiar with, but the core emotion he felt was the same. The one that made him get off the bed and walk slowly towards the room with the chair.

On his way, he hardl the sound of his father coming from downstairs- he was talking on the phone.

Sarat’s eyes and mind were fixed firmly on the chair. He wondered if it would transport him like before. Wondered if it would work since the chair didn’t call his name this time.

He hoped that the chair would whisper his name the closer he got to it. He was ready to imagine the sound as coming from the pure bright light of day that came in through the window-imagine it as being carried by the light all the way from his house in Kollam, its starting point his previous self- the one who still lived there.

However, to his dismay the chair didn’t utter a single word, not even when he got close and leaned an ear towards it. Not even when he looked right at the red cushion the colour of blood, as though the cushion were a face and he was looking at it, entreating for it to speak.

Realizing that the chair wasn’t going to speak, he let out a sigh.

He looked back and saw the empty doorway and the stairs beyond. He could now go down and have lunch and forget all about this. But then, that wouldn’t be any revenge.

For he wanted to scare his parents. He had seen the sense of fear in his mother’s eyes when she saw the stranger coming up the road earlier.

He wished for her to suffer such fear for a prolonged period- for hours, so that she would know at least a fragment of the fear and sadness that he suffered at this strange place where he didn’t have any friends, cut off from everything that he knew.

His father had said that they would go out in the evening. He would be back by evening, then. This time, he would go and open the door and enter their house in Kollam. This time he would stay there for a while, long enough for his parents to go crazy with fear.

A smile broke on his face at the thought.

Only, for the plan to work, the chair needed to work. Looking at it again, he saw nothing but an inert object, devoid of powers of speech or movement.

But it’s magic!

The thought occurred to him spontaneously, as though whispered in his mind by someone.

Yes, it’s magic!

There, that voice again! And this time, he was sure that it was indeed someone else who whispered those words in his mind’s ear. And he knew exactly who it was.

It was his self that resided in the house in Kollam.

Without waiting anymore, he took a seat in the chair.

**

The shed was much darker than last time. The armrests felt solid enough under his palms- so it was real and no nightmare, he ascertained.

He walked towards the door of the shed in a leisurely pace- he was in no hurry to get back. The sound of his footsteps echoed in the shed- a sound the meaning of which he felt was loneliness, but for some reason, he wasn’t afraid of being alone now.

Even the sight of the patch of cloudy sky he saw through the glass panel on the roof didn’t bring his spirits down- he was going home, and what better place was there than home!

As he pushed opened the wooden door of the shed, it opened with the same creaking noise as last time. But this time, the noise somehow came across as louder, as though instead of being in the countryside, he was in a vast desert where no0t even the wind howled and the creaking of the door was the only sound to be heard for miles, like a gunshot in an open space.

A quick look at the kitchen window afforded him view of neither of his parents. And he was glad for it. Trotting towards the front of the house, he was once again delighted by the sight of the mango tree and the gate with the peacocks in it. He didn’t tarry to enjoy the sights though, not even when he saw how wonderfully mighty the gathering dark clouds looked in the sky.

He wanted to get inside the house fast, before his parents may call him out for lunch- he didn’t want to risk them sighting them.

So he practically jumped onto the porch, opening the front door swiftly, and entering the house equally swiftly.

Closing the door after him, he beheld the stuffed parrot in the cage and all the familiar objects that said home sweet home. But even here, he didn’t tarry for he was eager to go up the stairs to his room. He couldn’t begin to explain how much he missed his old room!

Climbing the stairs, he noticed the family pictures on the wall- the one that showed him with his parents which they took during a trip to Kodaikkanal was his favourite. It showed him sitting on the hood of the car, like actors did in the movies.

He smiled at the picture. Another one showed his father planting a kiss on mother’s cheek-mother with a look of mock surprise on her face and father’s eyes lit with happiness. He had always found this picture to be funny, thanks to the exaggerated expressions on his parents’ faces- both of whom were not very expressive under normal circumstances.

But now when his eyes fell on the picture(he had to squint his eyes because of the dim light- the clouds were doing a good job of covering the sun in the sky), he felt a pang of sadness. Of guilt even. Of trying to inflict pain on his parents  by running away like this.

But then, he recalled what his mother did to him just about an hour ago.

Besides, he told himself, I would be back home by the evening. So, they needn’t worry for long!

“Also, I am back at my home! Why should I worry!” he shouted as he climbed the rest of the stairs two at a time.

Pushing open the door to his room, which wasn’t shut, was another moment of magic, or so he felt.

His eyes brimmed with tears of happiness as he saw the SpiderMan poster on the wall and all his schoolbooks on the table alongside the globe that could be lit from within- familiar objects in familiar places that made it appear as though they had never left the house in the first place.

Indeed, as he took the first steps into his bedroom after what felt to him like so long a time, he began to believe that he has never left this place.

His glee was unbounded when he saw his beloved teddy bear lying on the bed, his face towards the wall, as though in a somber mood- as he would be, given how he hasn’t seen his master for over a month. The teddy bear was one of the few items that Sarath’s father forgot to pack while they were moving- assuming that Sarath might have carried it with him in his bag.

“Teddy, how are you. I missed you so much!” Sarath shouted happily as he jumped on to the bed and hugged the dear bear. He then told the bear all there was to tell about the new house- the common premise of everything about it was, of course, that he didn’t like it. “Not even a little bit..There’s no Ronni, no Anaya, no Biddhu, no Tarun, none of my friends are there!” he said to the teddy. “And of course, I don’t have you either there,”he added.

“But never mind, I am here now. And when I go back, I am sure to take you with me.”

In this vein, the conversation progressed. Or rather the monologue(Wherever a response was required of the teddy bear, it was supplied by the boy himself). At some point in the conversation/monologue, Sarath fell asleep, though even in his sleep the teddy was hugged close to his body.

No nightmares disturbed his sleep. No voices whispered in his mind. In fact, he wasn’t even bothered by the thoughts of his father and mother worried sick  back home. In other words, it was the kind of deep , dreamless sleep which he has never had since he moved to Bangalore with his parents. Over there, the sleeps rarely made him feel well-rested.

But when the sleep did get disturbed, it was with a bang!

**

The thunder cracked like a whip in the sky as a storm raged outside. Sarath came instantly awake, not even a shred of sleepiness remaining in his eyes as he sat up in bed, teddy on his lap.

More than the loud noise of the thunders what made him afraid was the frequency with which the thunder cracked. It was unnatural, like someone was hurling bombs one after the other from the heavens. The window on the wall by the bed was shut but Sarath could see the water falling on the pane, almost as though someone was pouring it by the bucketful.

In fact, Sarath had no issues believing that he was in a ship caught in a storm rather than a house on the ground.

Thud!

The sound almost made him jump out of his skin. He turned his head to his right-to look at the window once again.

Thud!

This time, he saw the source of the sound- a branch on a tree that stood by the house, lashing against the window pane as though its sole objective was to crash into the house.

But even as he watched the branch in action, Sarath could see that there was something odd about it.

Thud! Thud ! Thud!

The lashing of the branch against the window pane now happened much more frequently- as though it was mimicking the flow of the thunder cracks in the sky. As though both were synchronized by the same unseen, unknown mind.

The fact that a consistent spray of water showered the window pane meant that the view wasn’t clear. But even so, Sarath got the distinct impression that there was something on the side of the branch that shouldn’t be there- something unnatural.

Thud!

The next time the branch hit the window, it was with a much louder sound than before. And it also afforded him a much clearer view of the unnatural addition to the branch.

He was dismayed to see that his assumption was right- it was a face, a human face!

Thud!

Sarath recoiled in horror- not just because of seeing the wicked embellishment of a seemingly flesh and bones face on the side of a branch, as though instead of a flower, the branch sprouted the face. It was also because of the identity of the face- it belonged to the same man whom he saw on the road in front of the house that day- the one seeing whom his mother got scared and slapped him as a result.

The face still looked at him with the same knowing smile that it had on that day.

Every time it hit the windowpane, the nose crinkled and the forehead was pasted against the pane- something that should have come across as comedic, only in this instance it all looked rather grotesque to him. Indeed, the face even put up a show seemingly to make Sarath laugh- by sticking his tongue out and pulling it back just before hitting the windowpane or squinting its eyes in a multitude of odd ways, like someone would try to entertain a little child.

Thud! Thud! Thud!

Each time the face hit the windowpane, instead of hurting, it laughed. And the sound was so far out of proportion with the size of the face. So much so that Sarath found it even louder than the thunder or the raging storm.

Indeed, finding the sound unbearable, he pressed hard his palms to his ears. “Mummy!” he shouted, despite himself.

But mummy didn’t come.

Instead, what did arrive was another variant of the rain. For as he watched the window pane, the color of the rain drops changed to crimson. Blood began to pour from the heavens, and washed the windowpane in a hue which Sarath would see in many a nightmare to come-provided he lived to see another day.

The downpour of the blood-rain heightened the face’ glee. It began to laugh even more wildly than before, looking up to the sky and closing its eyes and looking at Sarath and squinting its eyes and making very many expressions with its face which all spelled one thing and one thing alone – madness.

Thud! Crack!

Sarath almost fell out of the bed as he pulled back, as though the crack that appeared on the glass was a physical blow that landed on his body. Pulling teddy, who has fallen off his hands in the preceding few moments of chaos, Sarath got off the bed.

He heard the branch crashing into the window pane behind him, and the glass cracking again- this time the sound was louder than before. Way louder. And crisper.

He didn’t know if the face would be able to come out of the branch once it made it through the windowpane. But he wasn’t interested in finding out. All he wanted was to get out of the house and run back to the shed, where the chair would transport him back to his home- to the safety of his parents.

With this hope in mind, he reached the bedroom door and pushed down the handle. Only, it wouldn’t budge. He was pretty sure that when he came in, he hasn’t shut the door. But such details were of seemingly little import in the face of the extravagant happenings about him- the laughing crazy face of the stranger and the blood-rain which fell on his beloved home in Kollam.

For some reason, he felt that the rain would taint the home forever- just like how dropping a cone ice-cream on the floor, one would taint the cream forever, rendering it uneatable.

“Urrgh!” Sarath tried with all his might to open the door but it simply wouldn’t budge. It was as though the door handle was made without the principle of movement in it.

“Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!” The stranger’s face laughed behind him, a sound that filled the room- so much so that the pressure began to build in Sarath’s ears to an alarming degree. Blood began to trickle down his nostril as a result.

He wasn’t aware of it, and it was good- he was already scared beyond his limits.

“Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!” the face continued laughing, relentlessly, in a harsh tone which brought to Sarath’s mind images of two mountains grated against each other by a giant’s hands.

Was he being mocked for his inability to open the door?

The thought only made him push down harder on the handle- sensations of fear and shame now equally coursing through his body. But the door, true to its inert self, wasn’t sensitive to his fear or shame. It remained still, silent, without budging, even as the branch madly lashed behind the body, every strike of its organic body breaking the glass even further, and every crack made on the glass one more source of delight for the stranger’s face.

Another thunder crashed and simultaneously, the branch which had been knocking on the windowpane for so long to gain entry finally succeeded, a thousand tiny smithereens of glass falling all over the room’s floor, showering everything from the books and the globe on the table to the poster on the wall with blood tinged glass pieces.

And now that the inhibition of the glass was removed, the drops of blood which fell from the sky like from an abattoir in the sky, began to fall inside the room- first on the bed and later even further down, on the ground.

But wherever it fell, it began to melt things. As though instead of blood, it was lava- a special kind which only melted but never burned.

Sarath’s eyes widened as he saw the black circles forming on the bedsheet and the mattress, the circles slowly eddying in a pool before eventually consuming the things of human manufacture. He saw how the chair by the table fell as the blood fell on one of its legs and the leg immediately broke, like a man whose limb was cut off by a machete.

Once he found the grip of horror somewhat abating and his senses re-asserting, he got back to pushing down on the handle even harder. He shifted teddy from one hand to the other and tried again, but  no luck.

“Ha!Ha!Ha!”

Sarath suddenly turned around, hearing the sound of the laughter coming from very close behind him. And indeed, that was the case for the face, which has now come detached from the branch, like a mango being plucked from then tree, now lying on the floor beside the bed. Drops of blood from the rain coagulated around it, each drop elongating to join the next like living organisms, making a circle which pooled under the face.

“Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!” the face began to laugh even more gleefully as it felt the touch of the blood on its skin. The blood began to harden under it, slowly forming a neck as though some unseen machine has begun to sculpt a body under the face.

The sight in front of him had all the energy drain from Sarath’s body. His hands fell off the door handle. He didn’t think he had any chance- not when things like this could happen in front of his eyes. The principles of photosynthesis and different types of cells in our blood were things that he has found hard to comprehend in his biology lessons- why were things so complicated than how they looked in plain sight, he had wondered.

But this- the mounting of a human head on a body that was taking shape from blood that fell from the heavens- this was beyond comprehension. This was madness!

Things were made worse by the fact that it got even darker than before.

Sarath had a feeling that flipping on the light switch on the wall wouldn’t do much good. So he stood still, feeling the warm piss flow down the side of his thigh as he watched the face, laughing madly became no more just a face- torso and chest and hands and thighs and legs growing in the air- as if a hologram taking shape. Only, it was no hologram but a solid mass.

Already, Sarath could hear the sound of flesh and bone when it flexed its muscles, and notwithstanding the fact that the body appeared to be skinless- a sheen of blood tinged muscle and tendons covering its skeletal framework, it was human beyond any doubt. The face, complete with skin and hair seemed the least bothered by the dilapidated appearance of the rest of its body.

And when its mad laughter thundered in the room which was almost completely dark, Sarath couldn’t put a stop to the tears which sprung to his eyes. The room’s atmosphere was now a mix of raw fear and the stench of instant decay wherever the blood drops melted objects.

The next time the thunder roared, bringing with it lighting, the room was brightened for a few moments- affording Sarath enough time to see that the blood drops were now inching towards him along the floor, like maggots in red. Though the blood drops only made things better for the stranger’s face, he wasn’t sure if that would be the case with him. The next time the lightning presented a shivering display of the room to his naked eyes, he saw how the blood on the globe, ate away at the orb, rendering the earth less than half.

He swallowed hard.

As for the face which was no more just a face but a full grown adult without skin, he flexed his arms and Sarath saw that the arms ended in claws, the long talons gleaming in the lightning.

Whatever horror was coming to him was probably beyond his imagination. Sarath called out “Mommy, daddy!” over and over again, so much so that it began to make the face- so far only gleefully laughing, irate.

“Stop it!” said the face. “You came here on your own volition. Now why do you call out for mommy and daddy! This is your fate!”

And he moved towards him, slowly like the drops of blood trickling down towards the boy, savouring each moment, raising a clawed hand in the process, ready to slash it down on the boy.

Sarath now found it extremely difficult to breathe. The greatest horror he had felt in his life so far was at a carnival that his parents took him last year, when he got separated from them for about two minutes in the crowd. By the time his father found him, he was shivering all over, his entire body a cold mass of ice.

But that was nothing compared to the sensations that he now felt- sensations which he could hardly begin to explain. Pinpricks on the bottom of his feet and a chocking feeling as though a small slab of concrete was lodged in his throat- these were only the start of the long list of sensations.

And there was nothing he could think of which could alleviate these symptoms of the disease of fear that has afflicted him. No lessons that he has learned in school or that his parents taught him could come to his aid at this moment.

Standing in front of the face, threatened to be melted by the blood which came closer to him by the minute, the only lesson that he could think of was “Never talk to strangers”

He found it a silly lesson, given the circumstances.

Sure, he didn’t intend to talk with this stranger(a stranger even to the human species, one could say). But Sarath wasn’t too sure if that would afford him any modicum of protection.

He curled his toes when he saw by the flash of the next lightning that the blood was perilously close to his feet, ready to melt him to oblivion. The thought all but made him faint when the next burst of lighting immediately struck, putting the mango tree just outside the window in fire- a fire that raged  even as the crimson drops of blood danced their way down to the earth all around it.

And this edition of the lightning burst presented another thing to his view- one that was not there before. Right by the foot of the bed, very near to the table and the melting globe was the chair. The red chair!

He didn’t have to think to make the next move. He felt as though he were looking at him from the outside, watching him flee past the face- now the face with a body-towards the chair.

The room was now dark and he hoped that he could the chair as the face followed him on its newly made limbs. He could hear the face growling behind him even as he felt pain-like knives being pushed into the side of his ankles,  result of stepping on the supernatural blood pooled on the floor. Sarath cried as he felt the skin under his foot melt away, like chocolate melted from the surface layer of a birthday cake.

He was thankful that he fell into the chair.Pain spilt his head as his forehead hit the wooden ornamentation on the chair’s head. But that pain was more than overridden by the searing pain on his foot.

The face, perched on its body was not laughing anymore. It was grunting, expressing its anger at the way the boy has managed to get to the chair, even though he stood poised to stop him. Dissatisfied with himself, perhaps.
Sarath, who was curled on the chair, with his face pressed against the red cushion didn’t bother turning around, not even when he heard the face grunting just behind him, not even when a lightning shed another large pool of light into the room. He felt his entire body shiver as he felt the tentative touch of one taloned claw on the back of his spine- a methodical movement as though his spinal columns were being counted.

The face, once again began to laugh as he raised his hand, aiming to bring it down on the boy’s back with the same ferocity with which the powers that be in heaven sent the lighting which made the tree burn outside.

Sarath felt the heat from the fire searing his cheek, licking on his skin like a voracious beast.

The face with its body brought its powerful hand down, slashing through the air like sickle, ready to destroy the boy’s body like weed.

The fire from the tree caught on the bedsheet, and then the whole bed was alight. Sarath screamed, the only question remaining in the little one’s mind whether he would die from the fire or the claws of the stranger with a strange grin and an even stranger body.

And then, the heat was gone.

**

Even after he was back in the shed, Sarath continued screaming. He didn’t stop until his lungs felt like they were about to burst.
The sound of the screams echoed inside the shed and instead of the heat that threatened to tear the skin off his body was the charm of room temperature- easy, familiar. It made Sarath sit up in the chair and take a look around at his surroundings.

Even though tears still streamed down his face, a small laugh escaped his lips on seeing that he was back in the shed. Another thing that he was glad for was that the teddy bear was still in his hand. He hugged it close to his chest. “Teddy, we are here! We are out! We are alive!”

He literally jumped out of the chair, was halfway through to the door when he turned back, ran to the chair and planted a kiss on one of its armrests. “Thank you for bringing me back,” he whispered to it, looking at it like it were his best friend, with a smile of gratitude on his lips.

It was only when he pushed open the door and stepped out that the smile faded.

The raging storm and the thunder and lightning were all gone. In fact, the sky was as clear and blue as a recently cleaned pool of water. After being plagued by a rain of blood, this should have pleased Sarath. And it did, and so did the fact that the damage he incurred on the sole of his foot was no more there, giving him back an uninjured body.

What brought his spirit down though was the sight of the house. It was their old house- the one in Kollam.

This time, the transformation was complete.

Though Sarath yearned for the sight of his mother framed in the kitchen window on the side of the house, he couldn’t see it. For in the house in Kollam, the kitchen window was on the back and not the side. He ran all around the house, shouting for his mommy and daddy, tears flowing down his cheeks even as he clutched the teddy bear closer to him, not daring to enter the house.

 

**

The man’s face wasn’t nearly as wrinkly as it was when it appeared on the side of the branch. Neither was the sneer as lopsided.

But there was a sneer when the man looked at his younger brother-who sat not more than a few feet away from him, like him, having dinner, seated on the floor, just as they always had. The younger brother, more than 20 years junior to him brimmed with a youthfulness that was missing from the other man’s demeanor, a demeanor altered by the years of smoking, drinking, and more than anything else, accumulated anger.

The sneer wasn’t directed at his younger brother though. It was, more precisely directed at the question that his brother asked – about why they were indulging in bad magic, when they were the descendants of white magicians.

“Because no one believes in magic anymore, because men have the audacity to think that every progress in the world makes a case for science, it’s impossible to perform our sacred duty- the thing that we are born to do. For white magic could only be effective if the person to whom it is done believes in it. Not so with the black variants- for which the sole believer needed is you- the performer, and the sole result would be torment.” These were words that he has spoken to his brother many times before, relating to him also why they chose the occupation of carpenters once it became painfully clear that they couldn’t make a living doing what they- or anyone born in their line has ever been meant to do- performing white magic.

“If the world doesn’t want us, we don’t want the world either!” shouted the man presently. “But they are not going to stop us from making magic- if not the white kind, then we would bring them the vile kind. That would show them the power of magic!” He laughed, the same mad-sounding laugh which had made Sarath frightened, but which didn’t affect his brother for whom it was just normal.

Instead, the younger man looked at the ball of rice in his hand, not seeing it, looking more inwards than outwards.

More than the madness, what he heard in his brother’s laugh was anger- frustration at being unable to carry out their sacred duty as taught by their father- to whom it was taught by his father before him, and so on and so  forth since time immemorial when the veryfirst of all magicians- the mighty Lakhvara with a body like that of a mountain and the voice of thunder passed the secret art to mortals once the age of man commenced on earth.

‘So that the magically powerful could protect the weak. So that no one in your lineage would go without performing his sacred duty,” Lakhvara had told the first of all mortal magicians- his very first disciple and the first ancestor of all the magicians who were to come in later ages.

The young man could certainly understand his elder brother’s frustration- tradition has that if you didn’t perform your sacred duty on earth, your life is wasted here.

But he couldn’t see how having fixed the red chair endued with magic to the floor of the room in that house would help anything. The chair was cast with a wish-fulfilling spell. Only, the wish would be fulfilled in the most twisted manner possible.

As though reading his mind, his elder brother said, “You remember the chair that we left in the house we stayed? The one with the red cushion? Yes, I was walking down that way the other day and saw the new residents. There was a kid- a boy not more than 10 years old. I couldn’t be sure but I think it’s the boy who would get to enjoy the wish-fulfilment. There was certainly longing in his eyes!”

Even as he said the words, the man’s eyes gleamed with an otherworldly light. That, more than the sound of the laughter, unnerved his brother.

Seeing a slight look of apprehension cross his younger brother’s face like a shadow, he said, “Kids are the most vulnerable- and they make the adults vulnerable. If they see things-bad things, inexplicable things happening to the children, the adults would begin to seek out explanations in the unseen once again. And to prevent bad things, also to remedy them, they may seek out us- the ones who are born to perform magic, to aid them. You do see it, don’t you, brother?” he added with a grin, asking for affirmation that his plan was entirely delightful.

His brother nodded. He went back to eating his dinner that was fast going cold. When he looked up after a few moments, he saw that the gleam in his brother’s eyes has still not disappeared.

He was bringing another ball of rice soaked in fish curry up to his mouth when the sight of the unearthly gleam in his brother’s eyes made him stop the motion mid-way. “I feel that you are changing in some way,” he whispered.

His brother-who has a slight grin almost always on, grinned even wider. “Maybe I am,” he said, before starting to eat again.

Or maybe it’s the times, the younger brother thought. But he didn’t say it out loud.

For some reason, he felt sure that his brother wouldn’t buy that argument.

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