C. Adithya Narayan
Mirror, Mirror on the wall.
Who’s the fairest of them all?
The kid was in here for five years. The prison doors are solid; no bars to count. So, I got bored and thought I’d talk to him. The kid was in here for five years. The first four: he gave me his silence. The last one: his story.
Two nights back, he died. I got no bars to count. So, I thought I’d write about him. All of this is true, I’m writing this from memory. But I’m warning you, if there’s one thing he taught me, it’s that memories have an annoying habit of being unreliable. But I remember…. when you’re in here, that’s all you can do – Remember.
May his soul rest in peace, though it probably wouldn’t. All I have left of him is his clay flower pot. I’m planning to grow daffodils in it. They’ll look nice, don’t you think?
I remember the first time Ved spoke to me. He woke up one day, drenched in sweat, and just stared at me. Then, as if we had known each other since forever, he told me about his dream. This is how it went, more or less:
“I was in a room-my room. It was mostly empty, except for a bed, a couple of chairs stacked in the corner covered in dust and, on the wall I was facing, a mirror. Ugh! I was clutching my stomach, a horrible squirmy feeling, like I was on a roller coaster. The feeling went away as suddenly as it had come. Then, I looked at the mirror again. Yes, it was my reflection, but there was something wrong with it…
I walked towards it, trying to see it better, the closer I got – the foggier the reflection… I blinked, trying to clear my eyes. When I opened them, I was on a great big stage, in the middle of a greater, bigger ground, surrounded by the greatest, biggest crowd. THUD! I couldn’t understand what was happening. The stage was shaking, something fell behind me and crashed, I was losing balance…There was someone else on the stage. Argh, damn! If only I had stood still for a moment, I would have been able to see them clearly. Ugh- it was that squirmy feeling again. The earthquake hadn’t passed, yet that other person- a man, I guess, was walking steadily across the stage, towards me. I had looked up, trying to find the spotlight, I had to know: who was it on?
Then suddenly, someone brought a hammer down hard on my face. Bam! Then I woke up.”
I remember he told me this, paused for a moment, staring blankly at my face, then went back to sleep. I hadn’t said a word through the whole thing. I wasn’t complaining, I had time to kill, no bars to count.
To be honest, I’ve never seen a daffodil in my life. I’ve just read a story about it. I’m not sure how to get my hands on them. I’ve asked my guy, he said he knows a guy…
Anyways, I remember that the day after he told me about the dream, he woke up and started talking to me again. He asked me if I’d ever been to Singapore, I hadn’t. He told me I absolutely must go, I shall. Then he told me that he went there with his girlfriend, the love of his life, Diya.
He was 20 years old when he went. The summer before his final year as a computer science student at IIT. But, he told me with a proud smile, he wasn’t planning on going back to college; he didn’t have to. “The Guide” That was the name of his start-up. I remember he told me what it was about, something to do with computers and codes, I didn’t understand. It was the next big thing, he told me. A bunch of rich guys in Singapore had agreed to fund him. He decided to take his girlfriend there to celebrate. He was gonna hire her as his secretary. He’d need one, he said, it was Jobs, Zuckerberg and then Ved.
I remember he told me that they travelled in business-class, stayed in a hotel with a lot of stars, and partied in seven different clubs for a week. He told me he paid for it all. He told me he had taken Diya to a fancy French restaurant on the seventh day, the day before they were going to return, and that he had a ring in his back pocket. He was going to ask her a question that will change their lives forever…
“Are you Mr. Vedant Krishnamurthy?” A man in uniform with a bright badge had walked up to them and asked, right at that moment. A week later he was in here with me.
I remember he looked at me like I had given him a tough puzzle, tilting his head; frowning slightly. “I… Don’t know.” he said slowly, taking his time to think it through, then he simply turned and faced the wall. I remember a few minutes later, he was snoring.
I’m not entirely sure about the snoring. You know, Memories have this habit of being unreliable…
This went on. Somedays he’d wake up and tell me his stories or his dreams. I seldom questioned. If he talks he talks, if he doesn’t he doesn’t. I was silently curious. He didn’t seem to even realize that I’m listening. I don’t think he even knew my name. Pity, I have a great name, the best, really. But I’m not complaining. Time to kill, no bars to count.
I remember the day he first told me about Diya.
He asked me: “You know how you have a dream girl?
“Barely remember a real one” I told him. He heard it, didn’t listen though. He went on.
“I always pictured myself with this someone. This beautiful, like Punch-you-in-the-face beautiful someone. In my head, she is a great dancer. I always thought that when I’m with that someone, my life would be perfect. I’d treat her like my queen.”
“Then I found my someone.”
I remember he described how she looked that day in great detail. I also remember something stirring in my pants. Alas, I don’t remember the description though. Unreliable memories. Damn it.
He told me that he was attracted to her like a moth to a flame, helplessly. He told me he wanted to be with her. He wanted to love her. She’d be his queen.
And his queen she became. He wooed her like a movie hero. Not that she needed wooing. He told me that she had had a dream guy and that was Ved. Man never admits to another man’s beauty. But, he’s dead now, so I shall. He was handsome, smart and charming. You just look at him, and he makes you wish you could be like him. Or, like Diya, be with him.
I remember he told me that a few days after they got together was when he decided to start his start up. He didn’t want to be like those mindless IT robots, striving for mediocrity, drowning in regret. He would live a life worth living. She made him want to live a life worth living. She was a beautiful, talented dancer. He told me she was the dream of hundreds, only his came true.
She had fallen in love with his spirit. I remember him telling me about the day he told her about getting accepted for his scholarship, and the next day when he told her he rejected it; the day he told her about his start up getting funded. She had loved his spirit. His Roaring spirit.
They had a plan. They were going to live a long life; Change the world together; Have 7 kids, 3 dogs and a huge mansion filled with secret rooms behind Bookshelves. They’d share a thousand sunsets and a million moments. They were going to grow old, buy a beautiful ship and sail away….
I remember he lay down on his bed after telling me this. He closed his eyes and said ‘All is fair in love and war.’
All is fair in love and war.
I remember he told me about his childhood a few times. But each time he told me it was a different story. The lines seem to blur…
I remember he told me his dad stayed in the gulf for the first six years of my life, and that each time he came home, Amma—No, sorry, mummy and Ved would go to the airport and stand there with a box of his dad’s favorite Curd rice.
His mother hated to be called Amma. Call me mummy, she’d order him, and he tried.
The other time, he told me his family had stayed in India his entire life. They’d walk to the beach together every morning, play in the sand, and then have coconut water. Mummy never went to work and his dad was quite rich.
I also remember he told me about having an elder brother. But he seemed to forget about that often. Anna, he told me once, looked just like him but was a little shorter. He didn’t say anything else that day.
I remember he told me about an old lady who took care of him, called Kaveri Amma. He told me she smelled like sandalwood and coconut oil, and that she would pick him up from school every day and take care of him till Mummy came back from work. Mummy was always late.
All this was when he was in kindergarten, so he had only half-day classes. Anna came back only in the evening. Everyone loved his brother. He was that kid who would talk and laugh and dance and charm your pants off and never shut up. But Kaveri Amma would only stay till the evening, and never really knew his Anna. Ved loved Kaveri Amma.
She would never run out of stories to tell. She’d sit him down on the verandah, take a ball of rice in her hand and start a story. She would stop at the best parts and feed him a mouthful. He had to eat it or she wouldn’t tell him the rest of the story. Maybe that’s what stories were really for, to get kids to shut up and eat their food.
One day, Ved asked her where she got all her stories from. She told him that every year, in her village, a huge carnival took place. While growing up, she had seen a thousand plays in that great, big stage. She had always wondered how amazing it must feel to stand in front of so many and have them all watching, admiring and loving you. Since that day, so did Ved. But, he told me, he’d never been up on a stage. Not once.
You don’t need a stage to act.
I remember the only time he spoke a lot about his brother. This was the story he told me, more or less:
Once Dad had just come back from the Gulf. The four of them were having dinner together. Ved showed his report card at the table. Mummy was very happy, she told him she knew he’d do well, after all those nights she sat with him after her work. Dad lowered his glasses, as he always did, and his lips curled into a smile. He gave a grunt of approval and said he would buy him a gift on his next trip.
Anna didn’t say anything, he said he was feeling sick and went back to their room. This was very unlike him. Ved swore that he didn’t know why.
That night, Ved felt very thirsty. It so happened that, as he walked towards the kitchen to get some water, he noticed his parents’ room still had the light on. Also Anna hadn’t come to their room to sleep, so he must be there, Ved had guessed. He was just about to go back to his room when he heard the sounds. Sounds of Amma (Mummy!) crying, something about a bad mother, and then dad yelling. The yelling went on for a while, and then it stopped, abruptly. Dad’s voice just—cracked, and fell silent.
It so happened that Ved had moved a little closer to the door. There was a slight gap and he glanced through it. Anna was on the ground, his face blank and hard, eyes fixed on the floor. Ved could make out the shadows of his parents, if he moved – just a little closer—he could see them. Right then, Anna noticed him, Ved froze. His brother’s blank face gained colour. His chin began quivering, his eyebrows arching up like a hurt puppy. His gaze averted for a minute, checking if his parents noticed Ved, then back to Ved.
He was on the edge, like he was searching Ved’s face for something, anything. Then he found it; and the tears, which he had held back all the while came flowing out of his eyes. Mummy’s sobs, Dad’s scolding, none of that had this effect.
I remember he asked me if I knew what his brother had seen in his face. I shook my head. He told me he doesn’t know either. He said this and then went to sleep, or at least his eyes were closed. A couple of hours later, he sat up and told me “Don’t believe what Anna tells you. I swear to god I wasn’t smiling.”
All is fair in love and war?
I remember he told me that they sent his brother to a boarding school far away; one that made you study 12 hours a day, and let you come home only twice a year. He told me that mummy stopped Kaveri Amma from coming. Mummy had told Dad that they had to raise this one right; that Ved had started calling that woman Amma; that she would stay at home and make sure everything was perfect, and that dad better come back home.
I remember he told me that his parents had stayed in India always, and that the three of them would go to the beach daily, play in the sand and drink coconut water.
If I have another life, I am sure I would live it as a poet. I have written one now though, and felt that this is as good a place as any to put it. This is how it goes, more or less:
Shoot for the moon
Try a thousand tries.
Did you land in the skies?
Look at the mirror and say- You’re on the moon
Say that once, twice, thrice,
Till you’re trapped in your lies.
I remember everything he told me about his teenage life:
Ved had spent the last five years of school being the star. That’s what Mummy had called him- star. That’s how special he was. His life was unfailingly lived in the superlatives. He had studied the hardest, trained in tennis the longest, planned his life the farthest, and won competitions, or rather, beat others the most.
Of course he hadn’t done this all by himself. He had had the right kind of motivation, a jump start when needed; a kick-and-shove to get things rolling. But, Mummy had always known, He was a star. That’s just how special he was.
And he had learnt that too. That all the finest luxuries of life had been booked and reserved; the hotel of the greats had a table waiting under his name. But tread carefully my baby, Mummy had told him, pulling him closer to her, don’t let anything drag you down, and there will be many things that try to, tread carefully, my star.
I remember he told me that many things had tried to pull him down. A few bad tests, never too bad, simply a few marks less than what special. A few defeats and a few defects, only a few of course. Ved had understood that the universe was obviously conspiring against him, those were roadblocks, speed-breakers, meant to slow him down. The world was unfair, people don’t get what they deserve. What a wicked, wicked world. He had understood, but he knew mummy wouldn’t have… He knew his friends wouldn’t have. They had all thought he was a star. They wouldn’t have understood.
So what if a few marks had magically gone up, no harm done. So what if a few defeats never reached Mummy’s ears? No harm done. Everybody lies a little. Don’t they? No harm done. The star was still the star. That’s just how special he was.
Look up at the night sky, that’s how special he was.
Now say it once, twice, thrice,
Till you’re trapped in your lies.
My guy told me that I’ll soon get my daffodils. I’m sure they will look very nice in that pot. There’s this Greek legend I’ve read about the flower that fascinated me. It goes like this, more or less:
“A beautiful, young boy was living in a wonderful, old forest. Many men and women, and gods and goddesses who cross the forest, looked at him and fell in love, for his beauty had no bounds. But the boy was proud and vain. He rejected all his lovers: men and women, gods and goddesses alike. His name was Narcissus.
One day, Narcissus saw someone in the clear water of the lake in the forest. The person staring back at him was, he thought, the very definition of perfection. It was love at first sight. Men and women, and gods and goddesses tried to woo him, but none moved him enough to even move his eyes from the love of his life. Legend has it that he stared and stared and loved and loved. But the reflection could not love him back. He stared and stared and eventually died, and turned into a flower – a beautiful daffodil.”
I read somewhere that the real tragedy of narcissus was not that he fell in love with himself, but that he failed to recognize himself in his own reflection.
I remember the last time he told me about Diya. That was also the last time he spoke to me, or to anyone, for that matter. As usual, he woke up and sat facing me, looked me dead in the eye, and began talking.
The moment Ved saw her, he was attracted to her like a moth to a flame, obsessively. He had to have her. She was his dream girl: beautiful, talented and perfect. He wanted to make her his queen.
He told me he always knew they’d fall in love. It was inevitable, fate, destiny; whatever you might call it. She did fall for him, who wouldn’t, he was a star. He told me that he deserved her.
They had a wonderful time together. He told me he loved being around her, that he felt special when she was with him. She was the mirror that showed him who he really was. He had made her queen; he had become a king.
I remember he stopped talking for a while. He shifted his gaze to the cold, tarnished floor of our cell, and spoke, his commanding voice turning softer by the minute.
He told me that there were a few moments he was worried, maybe even scared. Tread carefully, he had told himself. He told me that when he had told her about how he might start a start-up, her eyes and lit up; so clear and bright. She had loved his spirit. He told me she was sure he would do great things.
Everybody lies a little, don’t they? No harm done. ‘The guide’ would become a reality someday soon, definitely. So what if it took more time, he didn’t have to delay her happiness. No harm done. The guide would change the world, and he was going to hire her someday, so why not then? She didn’t have to know. She wouldn’t have understood.
The guide is real.
I remember he told me that he had hired as his secretary; paid her a nice, fat check for a hundred thousand bucks. He had also booked two open tickets to Singapore. Delusions of grandeur, unfortunately, don’t fool the banks. It was the day before the celebratory trip with Diya, he was at home fixing a huge picture of his family on the living room wall, hammering the nail into the wall. That was when his parents received a call. It was their savings after all, and these were people who spend their whole lives never withdrawing more than what they absolutely had to. Suspicious activity, the man on the phone had told his dad.
He told me his Dad had made a couple of calls and found out that Ved’s college funds had been wiped clean. Mummy, he told me, had known something was going on, but she hadn’t asked him yet. He told me his parents were old and frail, and had resigned to a smooth ride, no twists, no turns and no abrupt halts.
The ride came to a screeching stop. He told me his dad demanded to know what was going on. Mummy was wailing, and screaming, asking him if this is how he was going to repay them, after all they’d done for him. He said this was the second time in his life that he had seen his dad cry. At that moment, he told me, he felt loved.
He told me he tried explaining to them. That he would figure it out; that he had a plan; that he was in control. He knew they were worried and afraid of everything they didn’t know about him. They had told him they’d be there for him, as if he was a sick, crazy man. They had promised him that they loved him.
The most important thing he told me was that he wished he had stopped then.
He hadn’t. He had told them he would take care of everything, that he had to go on this one trip to Singapore and everything would be fine. They went crazy, he told me. His dad, for the first time, slapped him hard on his face. His weak, old dad who couldn’t even lift the hammer to nail a picture. Mummy had scratched him and pushed him. They had forbade him from going. They told him that if he went, it would be over their dead bodies. He had to go. The show must go on, he couldn’t break out of character. They couldn’t force him to. This was his stage. If he stopped now, the show was over, the game was over. He wouldn’t be Ved anymore. This was who he wanted to be. He loved Ved. This cant be.
I remember he told me that his parents didn’t understand him. They didn’t know what it was like. It wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t control it.
He left the house that day with his dad’s credit card. The week went by, a week of cheerful mourning with the love of his life. He didn’t think about the fight with his parents. He was back to being Ved. Memories have this habit….
A week later a few neighbors called the police about a stench. The police had found two rotting bodies.
Then, a few days went by, and he was in here with me. Trapped in this cell, in lies and in memories.
The last thing he ever told me was the dream he had that night. This is how it went, more or less:
“I was on a stage. A great, big stage in the middle of a greater, bigger ground surrounded by the greatest, biggest crowd. I was dressed like a king from the north, wearing a huge gold crown embedded with rubies and a sword that was half my height. The spotlight was on me, as always, and the crowd was cheering for me, as I danced for them like a king would. Then, the crowd vanished, and in its place was just one person sitting and watching me. It was an old lady wearing a green sari holding a ball of rice and smiling kindly at me. I danced on. Then in her place was mummy, telling me I can do it, telling me to tread carefully, telling me I was a star. I danced on. Then it was Diya, she was frowning and trying to tell me something. I couldn’t hear her, so I tried getting closer, still dancing. Then in her place it was just a boy, it was me, sitting in that single seat in the middle of the empty ground. All alone with a hammer resting softly on my lap. I danced on and on… I thought: half my life is over, I can’t stop dancing now. So I danced on…”
The kid was dead the next day. He had told me all he wanted to tell himself, and when it all came out, he hated it. He was so upset that half his life was over, that he never realized that the other half was just waiting to be lived.
So he told me all he had to tell. It’s a pity he never asked my name though. Now, I’m all alone in this cell, until the next guy comes along or, god forbid, I get out. I’ve finally gotten the daffodils for the pot. They do look nice. Bright and beautiful, they remind me of him. I just sit and stare at them now. The prison doors are solid. Time to kill, no bars to count…
C.Adithya Narayan is a Chennai-born physics undergraduate at NIT Calicut. He compulsively reads, frequently writes and occasionally blogs.