Mumbai throbbed and pulsated like a giant beating heart at night. Its roads were the innumerable capillaries coursing through its interior, carrying the life-blood that kept it alive; the people. The people carried on with their lives in this great thriving organ, almost now a part of it. They kept it alive and pumping, traversing from its one part to the other, or taking the aorta highways to leave it. But even when they left it, they always came back. There was no heart without its blood; Mumbai was nothing without its people.
Under the cloudy night sky of seaside landscape, was another sky, dotted by millions of tiny lights. These lights came from the streets, where the bustling traffic jammed and honked into the returning hours of the night. The rows of cars were one after the other, each of them holding impatient people, all of whom had somewhere to go. These were known as the middle class; how much they ate depended on how much they worked.
The lights also came from the buzzing and shining skyscrapers, where the elite sipped wine in their wealthy abodes, looking down at the others from their glass windows like gods from above. These were the rich; how much they ate depended on how much they wanted to.
And then came the weak flickers of light from the slums. These thatched tins of metal housed the hungriest, where sleep came only if they had eaten that day. And how much they ate, depended on how much they had.
Inside this glittering beehive of a city, lurking in its darker parts, was a cheap, unrepaired apartment building. The chipped plaster showed that the building was almost deserted, and the surrounding area was just as dark as this one, with no streetlights on either side of the broken road. In this building, there were small square windows, some blocked from the inside, some curtained and others shuttered down. All of them dark, except for one.
A deep orange glow was coming from the single open window. The light was contrasted starkly in the heavy darkness outside, almost like a candle burning in a graveyard. Inside this window, was a man.
Kalpit Chandra was walking up and down his box-like room, his head hanging on his bare chest. His straight hair was unbrushed, and his hollow eyes were sunken in their sockets. His average frame had grown lanky, giving the appearance of a man who had been depriving himself of something more than just food. He paced down the length of his room with no hurry, his mind contemplating.
By now he had walked through the one-bedroom apartment so many times, that he knew the exact amount of steps he needed to reach the other wall. A diary lay open on his study table, its pages blank. Some of the pages had been torn out as if what was written on them was not worthy of being read.
When the broker had shown Kalpit the apartment, he had taken it without a second thought. It was located in the most secluded areas of the city, far from the constant noise that the city was known for. It was isolated, and isolation was exactly what he needed.
His father had been sad to see him leave home, but he had accepted the fact that if his son was to make anything of himself, it would be on his own terms. His mother, on the other hand, had stood in the corner watching him pick up his bags. Kalpit had taken one last glance at her and walked out the door. He walked away, hearing the thud of the door closing behind him. His childhood flashed in front of his eyes, which he spent in that very house that was now closed to him. He remembered studying for hours without stopping, under the watchful gaze of his mother. He remembered coming home late from school and trembling as his mother rained him with her stick. The same night, she would come and comfort him in his arms, yet with her certain coldness in her grip. She whispered in his ear, “You must make something out of yourself, Kalpit. Never fail to succeed in life. Never forget, you must succeed.”
Kalpit had come to Mumbai to become a writer, for he had heard it was the city for people with dreams, desire and dedication. He had rented the first apartment he had seen and began to set it up so that nothing would disturb him. There was no furniture in the living room, only a chair and his study table, with a kitchen table in the end and a dingy bulb hanging overhead. With him, he had brought his stacks of books, which were strewn all over the bed and in the living room. The books were all fiction, for they had always provided an escape from the dull monotony of the world. He had found in them glorious landscapes, bloodthirsty battles, medieval kings, extra-terrestrial aliens, dragons and swords. They had transported him into parallel universes where up was down, historic kingdoms where no life was safe, and futuristic dystopias where radiating robot men scoured the waste of mankind. Through these stories, he had found his talent to write. He wrote, but secretly so that the talent he had so newly nurtured wouldn’t be nipped in the bud. Having found his flair in stories, he had written dozens of them by the time he had reached Mumbai. If anything was to become of him, it was with a pen.
While re-reading his childhood books for ideas, he found something that wasn’t an idea, but something very different. He found that no good story had ever been told with bad characters.
Characters, he found, were the hinge around which the plot revolved. The reader had to resonate with the character to find the story relating to themselves. The character must have fears, peeves, fetishes, tastes and secrets. When these things were revealed over the length of a story, they made the character more than just tiny scribbles on a page. They made the character appear in front of the reader, in their most vulnerable state. The reader then feels every emotion that the character feels on their journey. They join the adventure, torture, liberation or redemption. When the story starts, it must be the beginning of a journey that the character and the reader both take together. If Kalpit had understood something, it was that to make a good story, he needed to have good characters.
Now, walking in his dimly lit living room, he stacked up ideas upon ideas, till they toppled over him. Nothing seemed to fit. He dreamt up doctors, army-men and businessmen. He scoured through his collection to search for memorable characters. He read up the memoirs of authors, and how they found characters. But there was something that just wouldn’t satisfy him. Something was always done before. Something had already been thought of by someone else. There was always something that seemed to have been already done. How could he expect to succeed a writer if he couldn’t think of a memorable character?
He sat in his chair and wrote for hours and hours on end. He took ideas from books and tried to make them into something else, like changing the number plate after stealing a car. It was only a matter of time you would be caught. Even if aren’t, you never feel like it is yours. The stories he wrote ended up being more prominent than his characters, their journeys being eclipsed by the theme of the plot. He tried; he tried hard. His pen scribbled his ideas in his diary, taking paragraphs after paragraphs. He delved into the depth of his stolen plots so vividly that he created such situations and subplots that he couldn’t climb up to the main plot again.
Characters, characters. Why were they so elusive? What was it about creating human beings from scratch that took away their authenticity? Why weren’t resonant characters coming to him? Why weren’t they coming alive on the page?
And then, Kalpit sat up. His shaking knee stopped and his eyes froze on the wall. That was it.
His characters needed to come alive.
He frantically reached for the pen and tore off all the previous work he had done. The pages were thrown in a flutter behind him. As they swam in the air and settled on the floor, the idea swimming in his head began to settle into conscious thought. It was the ghost of an idea, that he would solidify. He put his pen on the page and drew the shape of a human. It was a vague outline of someone, but it gave him a sense of direction. A sense of presence.
And then, he began to scribble out its characteristics. ‘He is male. He loves to read books; they serve to educate and engage him. They take him to another place, a place better than the one he lives in now. They are somehow a refuge for him. Refuge from the world. The safe-house to which he retreats when the airplanes above bomb the crevices of his mind.’
Kalpit’s hand began to slow down.
‘He had always had a strange relationship with his parents. His father supported his endeavours which weren’t numerous, but his dad never let him feel that way. He backed and encouraged his passions in poetry and writing until his mother stepped in. She had a different approach to handle her son. Her firm hand and rigid rebukes led her son to feel as if he had a noose around his neck and she was the executioner; it was almost as if she had his life in her hand. And when the noose of expectations began to tighten, he began to suffocate.’
Kalpit’s hand slowed even further.
‘He liked to be alone. He barely had friends growing up; not because he couldn’t make them, but because he didn’t want to. People around him had always mistaken his solitude for loneliness. He loved his solitude and became protective of it over time. His solitude had become such a part of him, that he took the bubble everywhere he went. He kept everyone out of that bubble, not letting anyone in, as if they would contaminate the sanctity of it. Perhaps that was when he failed to realize his solitude was weakening him.’
Kalpit’s pen scraped to a gradual halt.
His eyes were fixed on what he had written. He had an inkling of it when he was writing, but now he knew. He knew for sure.
His character had already come alive. And it was holding the pen.
He had subconsciously been writing about himself. It was an author’s instinct to allow some fragments of their own psyche to infuse into their characters. And then, he paused and kept the pen down. What if the best character to write about was himself?
What if he could write himself in such a way that he was aware of being in a story? What if he knew he was a character?
And most importantly, by writing about himself, would he know how his story would end?
Kalpit squeaked the chair back and stood up. It seemed outrageously insane. The idea was so ludicrous, that it somehow began to make sense. He closed his eyes and rested his hands on the table to calm his racing mind and thudding heart.
From that night, he spent his time writing about himself. He went into the details of his childhood, leaving nothing to the imagination. He penned every taste, smell, touch that he felt, almost as if to sense it once more. He wrote about the bullies in the schoolyard; how their fists rained down upon him while he minced his cries of pain because his mother had told him to never fight back. He wrote about the girl who used him as an emotional crutch and then threw him away when she found someone else. He wrote about the endless nights he sat studying; for his mother’s insomnia had finally found an outlet. He wrote about trying to open his black eye after a beating with ice and weeping silently behind the door of the refrigerator. He wrote about his neighbours comparing his capabilities to their meritorious children. And then, he wrote about how reading the authors who transported him to different worlds saved him from everything else.
Kalpit wrote the character, or wrote to the character as if he was in the room with him. The character was something between a first-person perspective journal and a person who spoke to Kalpit from within the pages.
The days went by as he went on and on trying to make the character breathe. During his visits to the supermarket, he procured merely the bare essentials to eat. He wanted his diet to be so efficient that most of it would be ready-made and wouldn’t need to be cooked. It wasn’t that he couldn’t cook; mother had made sure of that, he thought while picking up a can of vegetable soup from the shelf. It was because he wanted all of his energy to channel towards writing. He did not want to indulge in time-taking tasks like preparing his meals which would eat into his time.
Most of his days would be spent locked up in his dingy apartment, scribbling furiously in his diary. The diary was now half-full, with the impressions of the pen visible on the backs of the pages. He would imagine the character as another entity, travelling the lettered world inside the pages. The world was so similar to the real world that he himself had lived through, that he wished the character would be too. When his numb fingertips finally resigned due to fatigue, he let the pen fall on the pages from his aching hands and took a deep breath. He took a look at how much he had written and wheezed a breath of satisfaction. But this was no time to be satisfied. He hadn’t completed what he had set out to do. Nowhere was he near the goal he had set out for himself.
He stood up from his chair and the sound of his cracking knees resounded in the empty room. Creaking with fatigue, he walked into the bedroom and stood in front of the full-length mirror. It was after a long time he was watching himself. He noticed his dark-ringed eyes, with bags under them like swellings. His eyes went to the unshaven stubble on his cheeks and greasy hair on his head. He had a habit of pulling on his hair when he conjured up a mental picture, making his hair stand all around on his head like black crop. His hand ran through them again now, wringing through the coarse mess and came out on the other side with a bunch of hair clasped within the palm. They were shedding now, he thought. Why wouldn’t they?
He let the hair go and float onto the floor. The floor was strewn with empty wrappers and bits of the things that he had eaten. There were empty packets and opened cans lying all around, surrounded by the layer of dust and grime. He realized hadn’t cleaned the apartment since he had moved in; he seldom bathed himself. As he moved his eyes back to the mirror, he ran his fingers through the rows of his protruding ribs, which looked like ridges in a canyon. His bones had begun to poke through his skin, like sticks holding a collapsing tent. And then, a sound came from the living room.
Kalpit’s hand froze. He brought it down slowly and let it hang. It was a low thud, that seemed to cling through the air like treble before it faded away. As he stood, a soft, flat whistling sound wafted to his ears. His eyes were awake now, wide with alertness. He felt his scrawny muscles pull themselves together as if shrinking. His feet began to gently step towards the living room, where the light of the bedroom ended.
What he saw made him come to a slow stop. He felt a cold breeze caress his skin and pierce its pores as if seeping inside. The window was slid open now, and the stained curtains flew like gentle waves. There was complete darkness outside the window, except the diffused scattering that the rest of the city produced. The room was in utter darkness too, except the dim light from the table lamp in the corner. When Kalpit’s eyes adjusted, he saw that the room was completely empty, just like he had left it. The study table and chair had been unmoved, and the little kitchen table was in its corner. Frowning, he went and switched on the light bulb; walked to the window and stared out into the urban abyss. Faint, fairy-like lights came from the city afar. The area he was in was so dark that no car would even pass through it. Convincing himself that it was a wind abnormality, he slid the window back shut. The curtains fell back straight, swaying slightly.
He turned back and saw something rushing into his room.
Kalpit’s throat tightened into a wool knot. His skin began to crawl and his hands clenched up into fists. Someone was in his room. He had seen a dark blur creep into his room just as he had turned. It was too tall to be an animal, but too dark to be a human.
“Who’s there?” Kalpit sputtered, his voice sounding alien to his own ears.
“I know you’re in there, so no use trying to steal anything now!”
“I’ll call the police!”
He walked towards his room, listening for sounds. He badly wished he had a weapon now; his fists shook like glass. His neck craned into his bedroom warily; his eyes unmoving. A drop of cold sweat rolled through his brow into his eye. He blinked as the salt stung his eye and said, “Hello?”
There was no response. Kalpit now stood in the middle of the illuminated room, his mind trying to grasp at what happened. He saw no one, nor had he heard anything. Was he too tired?
Then, something washed over him like a wave and his eyes suddenly rolled up in sleep and he fell on his bed. His mouth mumbled something, but nothing came out. In his delirious state, he sunk into a deep sleep.
He was in a prison cell. The small cell seemed like a square cage, with cracked walls and chipped paint. The bars of the cell were criss-crossed with metal rods. He looked at beyond the bars, and he saw that someone was standing outside. It a very blurry figure, almost like a hasty brushstroke dipped in black paint. The figure moved from one wall to the other, as if patrolling the cell. The rest of the cells were empty in the long hallway. It seemed as if there was no other prisoner. Kalpit crawled forward on his hands, squinting towards the blurry figure and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He struggled to speak, but it felt as if his mouth was full of cotton. As if the figure had finally noticed him, it drifted closer to the bars and stopped. It seemed to hover there for a moment and then began to increase in size. It began to grow like a monster, and it cast its dark shadow over the boy’s face whose eyes screamed horror and then he woke up.
When Kalpit’s eyes opened in the morning, he saw that his drool was dribbling on the dirty sheets. His mouth had been open, which was now dry and sore. He tried to comprehend the happenings of last night, but his brain seemed too sluggish to understand what exactly had happened. When he looked at his old watch, a wince escaped his mouth. Too much time had been lost sleeping. He needed to get back on his schedule as soon as possible. But first, as his gnawing stomach said, he needed to get food.
The supermarket was especially full today, almost as if it were a festival today. He noticed the big Christmas tree in the corner of the store. All of the shoppers seemed in a hurry, yet couldn’t help but take their time scouring through each aisle. It felt out of place and uncomfortable for him to be in a public place. He couldn’t explain why, but it felt that he wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. Kalpit picked up his essentials quickly and stood at the billing counter. He never made eye contact with everyone, as if he were surrounded by gorgons, and looking in their eyes would turn him to stone. Handing over his money, he grabbed his food and rushed outside almost in a run. The woman at the counter shouted after him for the change, but his ears heard nothing.
As he ran out of the gate, he suddenly crashed into a man holding a bag of groceries. Both of their things spilt onto the ground and rolled in the dirt. Kalpit immediately knelt down to pick them up, murmuring a barely audible apology to the man. The man bent with him and began picking up his own groceries. As Kalpit gathered his food, he noticed that the man’s groceries were very similar to his own. He kept a can of readymade stew in his cradled arm and glanced over the man’s things once again. They were too similar, he thought. As it slowly began to sink into him when he looked at the groceries, he realized it. They were exactly the same.
His hand slowed down, and paused in the air. He tilted his neck up and slowly looked at the man’s face.
There was a gaping darkness where the face should have been.
Blood seemed to drain out of Kalpit’s head and sink into the ground. Without thinking any further, he stumbled to his feet and broke into a frantic run. He ran with his pulse throbbing in his ears, his breath in a heaving frenzy. A sound came from behind as if one of the cans had dropped behind him, but he didn’t stop. He didn’t look back. He didn’t dare look back.
He closed the door of his apartment and allowed himself to breathe again, his back sliding down the door to the floor. As his vision began to clear up, he saw the study table in the corner. Work had to be done. And there was a lot of it. So he pushed what happened to the back of his mind, piled his food on the small kitchen table and sat down on the chair to begin writing. The pen began flowing again, working to fill the pages of the diary with figments of reality. His mind was now locked on what he was doing, reaching into the deep canyons of memory and retrieving feelings and senses that he had long forgotten. There were so many characters, with so many subplots that he found himself in a pool of thought, getting lost in something and unable to claw himself out of it, cancelling it and rewriting the chapter. There was so much to write about, it struck him. Writing and remembering the aspects of his life that he thought he had long buried, was like digging a grave and resurrecting himself from death. It was as if he was creating a backstory for himself.
When the last glimmer of evening sun finally faded from the room, Kalpit’s neck bones began to creak. A slow, creeping ache began to crawl through his joints, beginning to set in. He felt the pain roll inside his bones, and flow through his limbs. He blinked his eyes hard. “I feel…” his voice said in a guttural croak. “…tired.”
He felt himself rising up and stand on his legs. His limbs were now wooden see-saws that creaked with every move. His spine crackled at multiple places when he tried to walk; the sounds echoed in the empty room. God, he felt so tired. It was if the chair had been made out of nails and sitting on it had pierced every inch of his skin. His eyes moved to the small pile of cans in the corner, their lids intact; unopened. The thought of eating made him grimace. Food took effort. Opening, ingesting and digesting it was something that he couldn’t imagine right then. Maybe if he could just sleep for a while….
With the thought of sleep coagulating inside his gelatin mind, he took a step towards his room when something made him stop in his tracks.
He wasn’t sure he had heard it, but it seemed to be somewhere in the room. He paused, listening. Nothing except the sound of the low whistling wind reached his bony ears. Blinking rapidly, he began to walk again. And then, the sound. It was there. Nearer.
The sound had definitely come from around him, and this time his widened eyes showed that he was wide awake. The air around him seemed to almost dampen, as if moisture had crept into the room. A clawing chill clasped his brain in a dead-cold grip. The sound was real. He had heard it.
As if to test the sanity of his surroundings, he started walking towards his room once more, and his steps falling flat on the ground. The sound began again, coming nearer as he walked.
They were another set of footsteps, deeper and heavier.
Kalpit ran into his bedroom, his head whirling and eyes bulging. The footsteps ran with him, coming closer with each thud. Kalpit closed the door and stopped. The sound stopped with him. It was so close.
He closed his eyes and his knees gave way; he felt himself fall to the floor like an extinguished matchstick. After years, he felt his fingers close into a shivering prayer. His thumping heart began to slow down and his ringing in his ears began to lessen. His physical body began to calm down, and he opened his eyes. What he saw made his brain sink through his body and settle into the floor.
The room had disappeared and all around him was a deep, enveloping darkness.
Kalpit looked around, but he could see nothing except the rancid black. His stood up, his legs creaking like wooden doors; his knees popping resounded through the darkness in an echo that never returned. Kalpit wasn’t thinking anymore. He ran, and he ran hard and the deep footsteps began to come after him again and the harder he ran the harder they followed the nearer they got and oh they were so close they were going to catch him and his spirit would leave his body —
A current ran through his body like white pain and his eyes rolled back in their sockets.
Kalpit opened his eyes.
Auburn light filtered in from the window. His squinting eyelids protected his eyes, which struggled to comprehend what had happened. Was it evening already? For how long had he been asleep?
He heaved his aching body out of bed and stood up. As he stretched, he could feel his skin fold in the places where muscle mass had been lost. He walked out of the bedroom and into the copper-tinted living room. Everything in the room seemed to have been washed by a coat of evening light. Involuntarily, his eyes shifted to the pile of cans in the kitchen table. Unopened. His stomach turned like a writhing prisoner at the thought of him eating food; at this point, it was as if his body would kill him if he ate. Another reason was the prickly feeling at the back of his throat that told him that he had written nothing today. He simply would not, could not, allow himself to eat.
As he stood over his table, he opened his diary. At first, he thought he was still dreaming, or his head must be swimming. But the more pages he turned, the flatter his expression became. There must have been something that was wrong; this couldn’t right, could it? This couldn’t be true…could it?
His entire diary was blank.
There was absolutely nothing written on the pages. He turned them slowly, as if in a trance. As he looked closer, there were impressions on the pages, as if something had been written on them, but the ink had simply evaporated into the air. Something had to be wrong. Words don’t just disappear. He remembered writing, he remembered. He did. Didn’t he?
He sat on the chair, and he had no idea for how long. His pen was in his hand, clenched in his numb fingertips. Thoughts flew past the conscious part of his brain, unable to solidify into anything. He had tried to remember what he was writing about, but it was as if somebody had switched off his memory. As he dug deeper into himself, he found himself grappling with hazy images of his past, a past he didn’t recognize. What was it that he was writing about? Was it something about himself?
When the light cowered away under the black veil of the night and the room was dark again except for his dim table lamp, he stood up. He took one look at the blank diary page and lowered his head. An ashamed tear trickled down the slope of his cheek. He remained mute, not even sniffling. The tears just came down like dead birds dripping from the sky. They landed on the blank pages and spread out into disfigured circles.
He trudged back to his bedroom, and paused for a moment before standing in front of the mirror. Who he saw was not him.
A stick figure was standing in the mirror, covered in skin. It was smudged, as if someone had thumbed a painting. The ribs were bulging out of the abdomen, and the creases of his sternum jagged his bare chest. A dehydrated, starved figure stood inside the mirror, who had no resemblance to him. The face was disfigured, and there were no features visible; it looked like no one. He raised his bony fingers, and so did the skeletal figure of the mirror. Unable to put his reality into place, he closed his eyes.
When he opened them, someone was standing right behind him.
What followed was a horrified movement of limbs and final loss of control; he fell inside the dark figure.
Swimming, breathing, flying. Crushing, creeping, crying.
When his eyes opened, all he could see were little objects flying in his vision and cracked colours in the background. When his sight focused, he tilted his head to the side, his head screeching with black jolts of pain.
The figure was standing in the corner. It was a humanoid figure, not the blurred shape like before. He couldn’t yet make out the features; his mind refused to comprehend it. It seemed the figure was covered in dripping black; no light reflected from it.
It walked — it walked — towards him, and stood at a distance. And then, he felt the ground slip from under him. The ground seemed to go down, sinking into nothing. But, no. The ground wasn’t moving. He was floating.
The air beneath him seemed to push him upwards, and he was hovering in the middle of the room. He was floating like a dead ghost.
The air lowered him onto the bed and left from beneath him. The dark figure gently walked closer to him, and stood over him. He couldn’t make out the expression, but it seemed to be of happiness. He felt lifeless, immobile, but his soul was screaming. And then, the figure spoke. The figure spoke in a voice like crushed leaves, crumbling rocks. A voice that came from the beyond.
“I had to kill you.” said the figure. “You had become too alive.”
In his dying breaths, he looked at the figure’s face; a face he knew. A face he had seen since his childhood; he saw the face when he looked into the mirror. He felt his soul relax and his body release.
And the dark figure on the bed withered into oblivion.