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Katha Fiction Contest, 1st place winning entry: Tapas and I

By Shreyan Mayukh Mitra Email By Shreyan Mayukh Mitra
July 2011
Katha Fiction Contest, 1st place winning entry: Tapas and I

This story is about me, not about Tapas.

There are so many differences between Tapas and I. The most obvious of them is the fact that I am rich, Tapas is not.

I come back from work in my chauffeur-driven car early in the evening. I watch the countless people outside the tainted windows of my foreign car. Watching the crowd outside somehow reminds me of rats. I watch and think, perhaps Tapas is out there somewhere in that crowd. Perhaps he has made some room for himself inside the suffocating space of a bus. There is some sort of laziness in the continuous jerking motion of a bus. Standing inside it for a long time makes one feel sleepy. Perhaps Tapas feels sleepy too.  

After coming home I go into my bathroom. I sprinkle the right mix of warm and cold water on my face. I come out and lie down on the sofa. I switch on the TV and start playing with the remote control. Sometimes in a lazy voice I speak up, “Chhoton, no mischief anymore.”

At that very hour Tapas gets down from a bus struggling with other passengers. But he does not go back to his home. He goes to his student’s home for a private tuition. After getting down from the bus, he starts to feel hungry. While teaching rhymes to his fifth grader, he keeps an eye out for the snacks that will be sent for him. Sometimes the mother of the student brings the snacks herself. Tapas knows those are not good days. Because, there may be questions on why skylarks are not afraid to fly or why stopping by woods on a snowy evening isn’t a bad idea. Tapas does not know the answers. But he feels nervous thinking the mother of the student may tell him that these questions may come up in the examination.

Some days there are complaints against him, “This month you were absent for two days.” Tapas does not know what to say. He remains silent and wonders if he should start nibbling the snacks.

After a few hours Tapas comes out finishing his tuition. By that time the darkness of the evening has already set in. But as soon as he comes out of the asphyxiating small lanes to slightly wider ones, a sliver of spring breeze passes through his hairs. Someone whispers inside his head,

            “After the entire day, like the sound of a dew drop

Comes the evening; the skylark wipes the smell of sun from its wings;”

But I digress – this story is not about Tapas; it is about me.

When Tapas returns home with the gentle touch of the fresh wind on his hair, I play some recently released Hindi movie on DVD. The heroism of the heroes, the stuck-uppity-ness of the heroines and the tear-shedding of their moms – all swim across my eyes.

Someday I invite my friends home, friends who are equally successful in their careers, like me. We discuss the global economy or climate change. And when no one else is listening, we trash those who were once our friends but now are not invited to these parties.

Some other days I go to an upscale restaurant or shopping mall with my wife. My role remains that of an uninterested rich customer. All the salespersons try their best to keep me happy – but from a distance, with respect and caution.

I think of all the Tapases of the world who never get to enjoy this life. They never find time to build their lives step-by-step, having wasted their time on fruitless things. They spend their whole life searching for something that they can’t even describe.   

But I could never convince Tapas of this. I used to say, “Why are you so proud of yourself? You do not even have a dime in your pocket and yet you are always brimming with happiness? Where do you get all that happiness?

In reply he used to give me a smile that could win the whole world, “Why does the sun become happy spreading his rays? Why do butterflies have so many colors on their wings? Why does the nightingale spread the melody from her small nest on the tree? Do these questions have any answers? Happiness does not need any reason.”

We could not understand each other, but, to tell you the truth, I was envious of him. Why should he be happy? Does he not understand that to be happy was like building a big machine? Every nut and every bolt needs to be built by chiseling on hard steel. If everything is perfect—then, and only then—you can be happy. How could he be so happy without any rhyme or reason?

But he hardly cared. If it was drama one day, then it would be poetry the next, and music the day after – he was always busy with those kinds of things. He used to come to see me whenever he wanted – always unannounced. With his endearing smile he used to say—as if a line from his amateur drama—“My friend, the boat is ready. Tonight we will win over our fear. No more anchor of the past, no more hours of worries and agony can pull us back. Let’s go, my friend, let the thick darkness in front of us give birth to our future tonight.”

I never paid any attention to him. And yet, I could not help but listen to what he had to say. Like a reckless summer storm that tries to knock off handmade picket fences, when he came, somehow time lost its rhythm. After he left, I felt guilty. I used to punish myself for wasting my time.

This story is about me, not about Tapas.

My life is built with the right measures. Nothing there is too small or too big. Whenever I needed something, I got it through rigor, discipline and attention to details. I excelled in academics when I was a student. Then at work, I quickly found out the right people who had the secret keys to the doors of my success. In addition, I put in a lot of effort. Together they showed me the right stairs to climb up my career. That journey is not complete yet, of course, but the smooth road can be seen straight ahead from here.

After so many years I almost forgot about Tapas. In the rush of daily life, who has time to remember long-gone friends!

But all of a sudden he appeared one day in my office. It was early afternoon. I had just come back to my office from my lunch. My nicely decorated, well furnished office represented my success in life. The heavy curtains hung over the windows, spreading a cover of cold shadow inside my room.

In that shadowy light, I saw him sitting awkwardly on the leather sofa. I was quite surprised, “You! How did you get here?” He did not reply. He did not even stand up. With no smile on his face, he started observing me from my head to toe. His hair was unkempt; He had the same saffron punjabi and white pajama that I had seen him wearing ten years ago. That bright smile was gone from his face. Rather, one could easily see the marks of hunger there. It was not a happy occasion to see those marks on an old friend, regardless of how much I disliked him.

Suddenly he stood up. Then with a sarcastic smile on his face, he spoke out:

“Did the old lady moon get washed away in the flood water? Splendid! Let’s catch a rat or two!” 

I was afraid that he might have gone crazy. But before I could say anything he simply disappeared through the door like a lost smell of an incense stick.

From that day, Tapas started appearing quite often. Sometimes in my office, sometimes at my home. Sometimes next to me in my car on my way back home from work. He had no interest in listening to me. He just watched me with some surprise and perhaps disgust in his eyes. If I asked him any question, he did not reply. Then he disappeared suddenly, after sprinkling me with few lines of poetry.  

Gradually I realized that he had access to everything in my life. Wherever I went, whatever was known or unknown to me, my sorrow or happiness, he had easy access to everything about me.

Then one day the whole thing went beyond what I could handle.

It happened in the middle of the night. For some reason, I woke up from sleep. The silence of midnight was everywhere, surrounding me. The green light from the night lamp seemed magical inside the room.

Suddenly Tapas appeared in the room from nowhere. He had the same sarcastic look on his face, the same ignoring smile.

I said, “I beg you, let me be free again, please go away from my life.”

In reply he said,

            “He had a wife sleeping next to him, so was the baby; 

There was love, there was hope - in the moonlight - still he saw

The ghost? Why did he wake up?”

I saw no reason to hide my annoyance, “Stop your poetry! You have spent your whole life reciting poems. Then why have you started following me now? Is poetry not keeping your stomach full? Do you need a job?” 

In response came more poetry,

            “Not our wealth, not our fame, not our prosperity - 

Some other endangered wonder

Inside our blood

Keeps on playing;” 

I objected, “If it is not wealth, fame or prosperity, then what else can one want? It is so obvious that you have no knowledge of how this world works. Now that you are hungry, you are disturbing others in the middle of the night.”

This time he did not use poetry. In a cold and prosaic voice Tapas asked, “Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?”

I somehow found my way to the mirror, but I could not believe what I saw! The same familiar unkempt hair, the same saffron punjabi, the same face even though it was from about ten years ago.

I could hear Tapas’ loud laughter from behind me. Now he said, in a compassionate voice,

            “I will also grow old like you - I will throw away the old lady moon

In the flood water of a nameless river;

Two of us will go away after finishing off the huge pantry of life.”

I felt a jolt of electricity inside my head. His loud laughter, his poetic arrows—I could not take them anymore. I had to stop this unwanted presence of him in my life. I could not control myself. There was a heavy metallic flower vase near me. I picked it up and threw it towards him. I heard the crash, followed by his faint cry, before he collapsed on the floor in pain. I rushed to pick up the vase again, then started hitting him again and again. His feeble, defenseless body tried to object unsuccessfully. It could not for long; soon it stopped moving altogether.

Didn’t I tell you in the beginning that this is my story and not that of Tapas? I am Tapas. I kill him with my own hands everyday.    

[The author is indebted to poet Jibanananda Das for having used a few lines from his poems, ‘One day eight years ago’ and ‘Banalata Sen’.]

Judges’ comments

Shilpa Agarwal: I found this story an insightful meditation on the nature of happiness, regrets, and reality. Its narrative arc slowly and elegantly grows in tension and unease as the story unfolds, culminating in a final, powerful revelation.

Ronica Dhar: This story was very impressively structured and did well to explore the timeless themes of class and “split selves.”  Indeed, that a story about “split selves” would be inspired by another story—in this case, a poem by Jibanananda Das—made for exceptionally fine reading.

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