Written in sand

SECOND PRIZE : SUNDAY HERALD SHORT STORY COMPETITION '15

Written in sand
Words are Aditi’s passion, preserve and profession. She teaches English to high school students at Indus International School, Bengaluru. Her affinity with the written word began early when she read Enid Blyton in grade four and wrote her first poem in grade five. She believes she has come a long way since then, and has found her sanctuary in words, having published poems & articles.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón in his novel The Angel’s Game says, “Poetry is written with tears, novels with blood, and history with invisible ink.” Ever wonder what stories are written with?

Short stories are written with sand. I am a writer, I would know, but you won’t take my word for it, will you?

Let me explain. If poetry is the Taj Mahal, novel the Twin Towers and history the Berlin Wall, then a short story is a sand castle. It ties so many moments, elusive and precious, and just as you begin to capture its exquisiteness, the tide comes and washes it all away. It vanishes without trace. A story moves you, and when you try to hold it tightly, it slips away from your hand, just like sand. The beauty of a story is in its transience. For this reason alone I say stories are written with sand.

We all need an escape. Mahanand creates it. He writes magic. He sells magic. His novels, they say, take you to the edge of your soul and then bring you back. Unscathed or not is neither here nor there. Just like a magician he makes you believe in the impassable. He makes you vulnerable to the fact that there is magic in your life. He tricks you with words. His novels transcend the boundaries of time and place, yet they are cogent and real.

He writes novels that make history. He writes novels that win a Pulitzer or a Booker. He has won a Nobel Prize, and if the grapevine is to be believed, he has eyes on another. Mahanand is a national treasure. In the world of words, he is an international giant of such magnitude that he dwarfs everyone and anyone who chances an affinity with the alphabet. They say he is oblivious to it all. They also say the power has not corroded his spirit. I beg to differ.

I am Nand. I am his clone. You didn’t think the scientists stopped with Dolly, did you? In 2002, a religious group Clonaid purportedly made Eve, a human clone, but don’t go looking for evidence. I’m not into statistics but, do you really believe evidences count? Evidences are bought and sold like flesh in the market. They mean nothing. They never have. From a mechanical perspective, cloning humans is more complicated than other mammals.

One reason is that two proteins, known as spindle proteins, crucial to cell division, are placed very close to the chromosomes in human eggs. Accordingly, removal of the egg’s nucleus to make room for the donor nucleus also removes the spindle proteins, meddling with cell division. There are other complications too, making this an uphill but not unattainable task. My aim, however, is not to give you a technical standpoint. I’m here to generate pathos. ‘Do I exist?’ albeit as a shadow, is not a question. Let me give you an answer to a more imperative question. ‘Why do I exist?’

I exist because Mahanand needs me. He needs me just like one needs one’s own arms and legs. Quite literally, in my case. Yes, Mahanand is larger than life. He is coveted. All the publishers want a bit of this magic for themselves. He, however, is more than what he seems. His paranoia seeps like blood from his novels. The ‘hamaratia’ he shows in his characters are his own flaws hidden in the jargon that he calls literary techniques. He is psychotic. There is a reason why his novels depict such kinship with the world of crime.

The morbid details come from his gruesome life. The mighty giant, however, knows that a fear he can’t fathom is killing him from the inside. He fears his veins will fail. He fears his mind will be too fuddled to sequence his thoughts. He feels his spine will give way. His feels he will have to pay for the years of debauchery that he has kept hidden under the cloak of words. His narcissism and delusion that he can play God (not only with words) has led to me. The lines between the fiction he writes and the reality he faces had blurred and the only way to a tangible insurance was to create me... with a little help of course.

I’m a human but you can best understand my existence if you see me as an amalgamation of spare body parts. That is the only way I count. Last time when Mahanand lost his thumb to a frost bite, mine was immediately severed to replace the one he had lost. A part of my liver was used to resuscitate his failing one. They would not think twice about doing the same with any other part of my body when Mahanand required it. So I exist, almost human, almost dead and almost alive. I don’t even have a name to characterise me. To distinguish me. My fate is sealed. I’m called Nand just as an afterthought... just as an appendage for Mahanand, which in the case of appendicitis can be removed without a second thought.

He lives in the East wing of the house where people swarm to, and I live in the North wing of his house that very few people stagnate in. I have a bodyguard and a keeper. The irony of having a bodyguard does not escape me. They ensure I am fed, I am quiet and that I stay alive. What I think or feel is not in their territory of deliberation or concern. Whatever I glean of the outside world is through the books I read, and if I’m lucky, through the gossip I hear when my keepers let their guard down in the dense smoke (they smoke relentlessly) that clouds their perception an inch. I am grateful that I’m allowed to read, and that I am taken for walks. Obscured. And there is always an invisible leash... if I run or contemplate escape, I die.

Not that I haven’t been sorely tempted. But my courage fails me every time, and later, I try to recognise this absurd fear of death when I die the proverbial thousand deaths every day.

My meetings with Mahanand are always fleeting. Almost always by accident unless...
We always stare at one another like strangers — we are, and I ensure that he blinks first. It counts. The wicked gleam of satisfaction in my eyes is reflected in his own just for a moment before abject fear replaces it and he rushes away as though he has seen a ghost.

I am a ghost to him just as he is a ghost to me. What he probably does not know is that I am a ghost to myself, too.
Truth is stranger than fiction.

Imagine my shock (I’m not sure if I am supposed to feel emotion) on being called to the East wing of the house. My tentative steps faltered and my mind was blank. And, if I was stunned earlier, I was practically numb when Mahanand asked us to be left alone in a room that smelt of tobacco and putrefying roses. Note the pathetic fallacy.

“Do you know the taste of fear, Nand?” he began without a preamble. I knew the taste of fear THEN more than ever, but I could not answer even though my life probably depended on it.

“Good!” he said.“That was a rhetorical question.” He paused a bit and then lit a cigar. I noticed his fingers shook.

“I have brilliant flashes of insight, but they vanish like lightning,” he continued, “I don’t trust anyone. Not even that shadow on that wall. Can I trust you?”

I was thinking there must be irony in there somewhere. I didn’t realise I had smiled. “You can’t be my clone, if that’s the best you can muster,” he mumbled and said, “This was not a rhetorical question. You disappoint me. Your body is mine and so is your mind. It must be trained to think like me.” I was dismissed.

Despite the unpromising beginning, I was to be escorted to his wing every evening where I would write his dictates. I was all but tied in the chair opposite to him and wrote every word he said. His fingers shook too much and often I noticed his left hand cradling his right one. Involuntarily I stared at my hands. Would they be severed? He wanted me to fill in the blanks when he lost his reverie. I kept thinking there must be more to this, but whatever it was, it escaped me. Our conversations bordered on being dramatic monologues. He spoke about all he had achieved. All that he would accomplish. He spoke about the darkness within him with such panache as though he was invincible.

“You are my ticket now to this world,” he chuckled once. I smiled. Inside I seethed with an angst I can’t explain. Note the irony. I told you I am a writer... but sometimes, words come between what one wants to say. Imagine sitting next to someone who could, if he wanted to, break you piece by piece. How could one think? The only solace was that I could see he was suffering. The physical aspect was apparent, almost palpable. And despite all the trepidation, I also felt a certain rush at being finally noticed. Once fear has been a permanent part of your existence you feel its sting a little less every subsequent time it gnaws at you. Day by day I felt more... a little more than the sum total of my body parts.

My escorts sat outside the door (Mahanand’s command) and my feet were chained to the desk I wrote at. Mahanand was lucid but spoke mostly to himself, or so it seemed. I wrote down his ramblings. I wrote down every word he said. And after three hours every day, I was back to my room wondering, when, not if I would be summoned for a part of my body. Then, I began to wonder about other things.

I began to wonder about the words I wrote. It was hard not to be moved by their passionate outcry. Despite Mahanand’s apparent ramblings, there was a massive story in there somewhere, but I was more intrigued by the subplot. The main plot was lost to me just as I surmised was lost to Mahanand himself. The subplot germinated in my mind. It proliferated into something more real than the life I lived.

The next time I was with Mahanand, and despite being chained to the desk, I took the biggest leap of my life. It was serendipity. I could feel it in my bones. What did I have to lose?

“Do you believe in Existentialism?” my captor began, but I was already lost to him.
I was lost to the world. The subplot now had pronged its tentacles into the void. Mahanand’s dictates were pushed to the background. I wrote as though I was consumed. I wrote as though I had no control over what I wrote. The angst poured like blood onto the sheets of paper before me.

The longings of my soul dripped like tears soaking the sheets in front of me. I must have nodded and made the right gestures and sounds, because Mahanand sensed nothing amiss. Something told me (sixth sense of a clone?) Mahanand would not scrutinise the pages of the manuscript every single day. Apart from the fact that he was rambling most of the time, he seemed too spent after our session together. It seemed very unlikely that he would find the strength to proofread his work as we went along.

I didn’t just believe in miracles. At the moment I relied on them.
Each night the characters of my story both enticed and plagued me. Each night I scribbled and scrawled in my head. Each night I became more and more like the quintessential writer I was meant to be. I went to bed as Nand, depleted and adrift, and woke up as Mahanand, restored and sharpened. I looked forward to put into words the notions of my mind. I longed to see how my deliberations would look on paper. I was so involved in my task one day that I saw Mahanand looking at me quizzically. I cursed myself silently when he asked, “So, do you think Aditi should die?”

“Who is Aditi?” I wanted to ask but bit my tongue and audaciously said, “It depends on how you want the story to end.”

A hint of amusement tempered his “so you do have a tongue inside your mouth, eh? Why think about the conclusion already? We have only just started.”

And that was that. A close shave? Foreshadowing? I decided to tone down the torrent of thoughts and ideas that were cascading onto paper. I could not hold my story inside me any more, yet, revealing it too soon would result in a certain death for me... and my story.

What would be more disappointing is anyone’s guess. I’m not sure what I planned to do once my story was completed. But I felt the culmination of my story would lead to an apex of my life. However, life has a way of moving on while you are doing something else. I have no recollection of how days changed to weeks and weeks to months. I was a boat rocked by an endless sea of words and phrases. Finally I saw land. I knew how my story was going to end.

But, what is a good story without a twist?

Mahanand was waiting for me as I went to write the climax of my story. I paled when I saw him holding the manuscript in his hand. The smile on his face did nothing to mitigate my unease.

“Here’s proof you are my clone,” he said in a voice that did not sound as feeble as the last time I had heard it.

“Brilliant!” he said and went on, “Even I could not have thought of this! I can see it on the bestsellers list already.”

“I’ve not written a word you dictated,” I said in a voice that did not sound like my own.
“I know,” he said. When I flinched, he continued, “You weren’t meant to. I had reached the dregs. I have only just begun to tap your potential.”

When I still didn’t quite comprehend, he continued, “You live your life for me, Nand. You owe your life to me. I am your creator. I understood your angst. In fact, I banked on it. I told you that you are my ticket to the world.”

I blanched and felt my insides pulverise. And just as my grief overwhelmed and broke my spine, a stronger emotion held me up. Hate?

“The climax is in my head. Cut it and take it out. See if that helps.” He looked bloodless.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “you will finish this story.”
“What if I don’t?”

“Then the story will still see the light of day. You won’t.”
“Is that supposed to scare me? My life is worse than hell and you know it.”
“You still want to live. Your desperation to live is evident all over the pages you wrote. You don’t want to die.”

A seed of something sinister was germinating in my mind. Life is not all pointless, even if it is that of a clone.
“I’ll complete MY story,” I said.
“You won’t regret it,” he said.
“But YOU will,” I almost said aloud.

After that it was only logistics. The manuscript was a femme fatale. Both of us were fighting for this temptress. This was a melee that had started the day I was created. One of us had to die. It could just as easily be me. He had the conceit and power. I only had a chance — this piece of wire that I had always hidden with me. I don’t even know why I carried it. It was always for some eventuality that I had no visualisation of, until this moment.

When I went to his room the next day, I knew why I had hidden this piece of wire with me all this time. Everything in life has a purpose, a meaning. Even an odd bit of wire that has been with you for so long... it’s like your skin. While my legs were being chained to the table, I could hear Mahanand talking to his publisher in the other room. I could not hear the voices but knew it was about the novel. About MY novel. I was blinded by rage — hot and cold at the same time.

I gently inserted the wire into the lock and after a few frustrating and panic-filled attempts, I finally opened it. I pretended to still be chained when Mahanand walked in.
He closed the door, sealing his fate.

“You won’t suffer a bit,” he said. “I’ll probably send you on a holiday somewhere after this.”

He did take the words out of my mouth. But, for the first time, I let my actions talk for me instead of my words. I moved so swiftly that even the air around me pirouetted. I wrapped the chain around his neck and culled it hard. His eyes were mystified even in death. Almost sensing casualty, the vulture rushed in. Mr Publisher came in and surveyed the scene. I expected anything — a scream, a scene maybe, or even blood, but what I had not expected was a calculating silence. He calmly closed the door before he spoke, “The book needs to be on the shelves by the end of this month. A lot of money is at stake. No one needs to know a thing. Nand is dead. You will be Mahanand now.”

Reality is a shadow in a world of appearances. I felt numbness and just when release was about to trickle in, the irony hit me. The novel would be authored by Mahanand.
I bowed to fate. Sand castles are no match for the mighty waves.

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