He was writing a book about death. Well, about how death gods seduce their consorts and mortals in general. As every sensible publisher knows, death, sex and religion are the cornerstone of every bestseller. It was midnight when he finally mailed the book to Dave (his publisher), evacuated his caravan and slipped into the hammock comfortably. Stars and a half moon peeked through the slender leaves of the date palm. As his eyes found themselves closing, it seemed as if darkness was filling the other half of the moon and slowly creeping into the bright portion. His feet were running, dragging him desperately away from… something. A small oasis seemed to move ahead of him, elusive, as he chased it, his throat burning. He felt a palpable softness, a shadow that was enveloping the entire land, closing around him. Running even faster, he did not know if he was running from this darkness, or towards the water.
A gust of wind threw sand in his eyes. He slipped on a dune and fell flat on his face. The darkness rapidly wrapped itself around him, making him sink into the sand. Just before utter darkness enveloped him, he saw in the stars the sigil of Osiris, king of the underworld and guardian of the dead.
A splash of cold water woke him spluttering, and just as he was about to let flow a torrent of vile curses, he saw a gypsy girl grinning at him. Unusually shy, he pulled the sheets to a more dignified position and asked her waspishly what her business waking him was. ‘Well, sah, you see, those bees are ‘bout to fall on your face, as gramma said she want fresh honey. An’ it’s close to midday. The boys been waitin’ long for yer sleepy highness, eh’. He looked around, and indeed a gypsy encampment had established itself in the time he’d snored away peacefully. What, gypsies?! He jumped up and ran to his caravan. Everything seemed untouched. ‘We’re not really thieves, you know’. The writer turned around guiltily to see the girl smiling at him impishly. ‘I didn’t mean…’ ‘yes, yes, I know. Although I have to admit, your book IS rather interesting, especially the naughty bits. Did Persephone really do that?’ He whipped around, shocked ‘What? You read it?! How dare you invade my private property? You damned people have no sense of what’s sacred? Do you even know what death means?!’. She looked at him, a disquieting expression in her dark eyes. ‘Read about Lety’, she said and swiftly walked out.
After a light lunch and a brief web-hunt, he went and apologized to the girl, abashed. Hanging a dress on the line, she smiled and said, ‘Well, writer, lend us your voice some day. We Gypsies have been misunderstood far too long. But I had a small request. May I?’ He smiled, for the first time appreciating her dark eyes, copper skin and a radiance that seemed to flow through her. ‘Certainly, please tell me’. ‘Well, it’s like this. I’ve read your story in its purest, unedited and unpublished form. It is a precious secret, and as I’ve stolen it without permission and enjoyed it, I feel indebted to you. If I understand you correctly, you would not consider accepting payment for it, but may I see your hand and divine some mysteries of your future?’. He shook his head and thanked her, assuring her that it was enough that she enjoyed the work. But glancing at her deep, black eyes the thought of spending more time with her penetrated his scatterbrained writer mind, so he consented.
‘I see a journey, not in this plane but further. You’ve travelled there once, in your dreams. You will meet someone, a powerful someone. I do not know who he is, but a shroud of darkness hides him, glowing like a thunderstorm. I see fame. And fire. Photos of you are burning, people running’, and she blushed…’I see a spell is needed to keep you safe’. She walked to him, her eyes aglow. When he emerged from the caravan, dazed, he heard her sweet voice, ‘A dream-spell I give you, traveller. It will save you when the time is right. Remember Imena, the Gypsy Queen. Fare well’
He drove on and bare mountains stretched in the distance. That night he had another dream. He was walking through a run-down crowded street, neon boards flashing on both sides with names such as ‘El Tio’ and ‘Izanami’ floating, neon girls with long legs hovering on the boards and suspicious looking men with grotesque, leering eyes standing at the doors, watchful. Suddenly from one of these places, a grizzly hand grabbed his collar and pulled him into a room. A giant of a man in a checked Lungi* lifted him and in a fluid motion, threw him in a gaping hole in the middle of the room. This hole was the entrance to a long-winded, deep tunnel and rapidly falling through, he saw through small openings glimpses of worlds strange and wondrous, swerving past them without falling, and flew out of the other end, straight into a fresh mound of soft sand. Shaking his head clear, he saw a painting stretched across the landscape, with a door that seemed to touch the clouds. As he walked towards it, a jack-in-the-box suddenly popped up. ‘Password?’, he enquired in a polite, high pitched voice. ‘I don’t know’, the writer replied. ‘Wrong answer, mate’ replied Jack gleefully, and boxed his left ear. ‘No, I mean I don’t know the password’, the writer yelped, ducking. ‘Wrong again’, said Jack and landed another nasty knock, this time on the right. ‘Can I have a hint please?’ the writer pleaded. ‘Well, the old laws says you can. It’s a god, see. In your birth tongue it would refer to a very steady person, and that he is’. Jack wasn’t too pleased at this technical glitch, and waited with a glint in his eyes to land another punch. ‘Rock?’ Wham! A sucker punch straight in the wobbly center of the belly, and Jack was crackling with delight. The writer cursed quietly, clutching his wobbling tummy. He stretched on the soft sand, his mind flashing back to the Neon signs. In the iridescent madness of signboards, there was one that was unlit, and now when he thought about it, it seemed peculiar. He tried to concentrate on the unlit sign, and it suddenly lit up in his mind’s eye. All of a sudden, he knew. ‘Barastyr’, he whispered. Jack suddenly became alert. Looking at him he asked, ‘Whatcha say? Didn’t catch the last bit’. ‘Barastyr’, saud the writer more firmly. Jack stretched high, and coming down, went straight into the ground with a final mad cackle.
The painting crumbled and he found himself standing in his own caravan. As he emerged, he saw a small plastic table with a dirty white table-cloth, and a tea pot on top of it. A man sat in a chair opposite (well, there was something more than human about this man, but at the present time, he’d taken the shape of man so we’ll call him that for convenience’s sake). His grey eyes surveyed the writer quietly. ‘Are you Barastyr?’, the writer asked. ‘Yes, lad’, Barastyr smiled. His voice rumbled like thunder and his smile… Well, frankly, it was scary. The writer shuffled uncomfortably. Barastyr pressed his fingers together, letting off a small bout of lightning. ‘Well lad, I usually let fate run its way, but your mother demanded that I warn you about this book you’ve written’. ‘Mother?? Wait… My book? Wh-what about it?’ stammered the writer. ‘It’s trouble’ said Barastyr with a wan smile ‘I don’t know how to put this, but it’s going to make you famous’. ‘So?’, asked the writer, confused. Barastyr took a deep breath and continued, ‘Please understand this is classified stuff. Your mom tends to land me in this strange predicament. She was my partner for a long time, and during one of her arguments she got pissed off and decided to get born as a human, just to annoy me. Now she has you, and wants me to do secret-spilling’ he rumbled his displeasure, ’You see, no creative person can go ahead if he is remembered. No artists, musician, writer or even inventor of any sort’. Writer looked confused, ‘pardon me, but I don’t follow. Go ahead where? I’m sorry’. ‘Well lad I’m sorry too. How your feisty mother could yield such a dunderhead (Obviously her human consort, he muttered to himself). Anyhow, see, between the dying of the body and the release is a zone. Call it deadland if you wish, for want of a better word. Some also call it limbo, but I’ve no idea why. You see, the strings of live hold it together. Let me elaborate. For example, if a loving pair wish to die together, but one of them die first, the other waits in this plane till the other is also freed. Of course, that’s only for true lovers. But here is the actual catch. If a writer is remembered (as in, his books are around and actually read), or a musician’s compositions performed, paintings exhibited, plays performed and so on and on, the creator gets trapped. That’s why we’ve never had another Mozart or Milton or Premchand or Turgenev. Not even another Marx or Freud. They’re all stuck for as long as civilization remembers them and preserves their writing. Luckily some of these fellows had a time when they were forgotten and could slink on before being rediscovered, and thus escape this trap. But if you become etched and preserved (damn your newfangled internet, it’s made that so bloody easy), you’re screwed’.
The writer was silent for quite some time. And when he spoke, it came as ‘Ack… eck… ook… umk… oghhk…’. Barastyr slapped his massive forehead, ‘God, I’d clean forgotten. Sorry, lad, mortals aren’t really allowed to be in my presence. It has side effects, just like the antibiotics we slip on down when we have too much crowd up here. But don’t worry, remember your Gypsy love and you’ll be right as acid rain when you wake up’. Saying this, Barastyr lightly ruffled his hair and rose backwards, growing and slowly becoming indistinguishable from the dark clouds swaying around the mountains. The writer stared at the empty space for a while. Then he went in and fell on his bed. If it wasn’t for the snakelike creatures that were slithering in his hair, he would have thought that last night was just a dream. Yelping, he ran out and shook them out of his hair, screaming obscenities that came out as ‘ark… ork… urk…’ And ‘ark…ork’-ing on, he thought of her magic spell. The serpents disappeared. ‘I’m all right?! Whoa! Yippy yaiee oodle doodle poodle pooo! Imena Imena gypsy love!!’, he danced in ferocious delight, and suddenly stopped short. Damn! The publisher. Dave. He rushed into the caravan and glared at the no-signal in his phone. And pushing the pedal he drove (rather rashly, I must say) towards the nearest village.
The nearest village turned out to be almost a day ahead, and as soon as his phone showed a flicker of network, his phone went into a frenzy of text message bings and Whatsapp pings. ‘Omg! Love this. No edits frm me’, ‘Otter publishing house pickng it up’, ‘pwned!’, ‘\m/’, ‘here goes mi amigo – ‘Otter Publishing House is Proud to announce the Worldwide Release of ‘Longing and Lust’. You killed it, man‘. The writer read them as if in a daze. He read them over and over again. He dialed Dave’s number. And at the first ring, his phone went off.
Cursing, he drove on and came to a fuel station. Hopping off hastily, he went to the (over)friendly shop-owner if they had a public telephone. The man shrugged, then smiled and offered to let him call fro their office phone as long as he purchased something. As he was trying to recall Dave’s number, he saw a book on the shelf. The cover had a Devil (with red horns and spiked tails) drowning a lissome beauty in a pot and an Elvis like fellow crouching from top of the cover with a knife held between his teeth. And he read the embossed title. He put the phone down and grabbed the copy. As the enormity of his popularity struck him, he found his jetlagged body being dragged (gently) into the cosy office of ‘Otter Publication House’ with an ottery looking receptionist asked his name, giving him a dismissive and rather charming toothy smile. His name, however, seemed to have quite an effect, since she pulled herself together and ushered him straight into the head publisher’s office with wide-eyed reverence. The head publisher heartily congratulated him and told Dave to take care of him, as he was, after all, a precious asset of the company. As soon as the door to Dave’s cubicle was closed, the writer exploded, ‘Dave, what the heck, man! Couldn’t you at least ASK me before publishing. You needed all that shit signed, right?’ Dave looked at him, surprised and rather hurt (they’d been friends since the journalism course, after all), ‘But Dude, how does all that matter. You gave me the book to publish, right? And here you’re ahead of all the popular writers at this time. Top of the bestsellers, bro! Your story clicked. Isn’t this every writer’s wet dream’?! The writer pursed his shoulders, ‘You don’t understand, If I become popular, I could get stuck for life. I mean death. I… I don’t know how to explain it. Could you get the book off the shelves? Please?’ Dave looked at him pityingly, ‘I understand. You’ve been having a tough time. And fame takes its toll. Mate, you just get home and rest. Don’t worry, we’ll handle it together. Trust me.’ Firmly but gently taking him by the arm, Dave escorted him to his newly purchased car and told the driver to take him straight home. Unnoticed, the receptionist grinned.
The author could not think of what to do. Barastyr’s words echoed in his mind, his rumbly voice reflected from the dark clouds in the windowpane. The perfect weather to curl up with a new book and a cup of coffee, he thought disconsolately. The next morning woke him up with his mailbox warning him that he needed to upgrade to a premium account (or delete unread messages). (Finally) he put his phone for charging (and put it to silent mode after constant beeps and calls from unknown admirers). Scratching his hairy chest, he opened the door to find two massive stacks of mail delivered personally to him, and a camera flashed. ‘What the…? Stop it, you idiot! Who are you guys?!’ he shouted and tried to close the door. ‘Sir, please, is it true you’re going insane?’ ‘Is the CIA after you for something in your text?’ ‘Do you think our country is being subliminally subjugated?’ ‘Are you against corporate monopoly and aggressive advertising?’ ‘Do you believe in free – as in free speech over free beer’ ‘Is your book an exposé, like ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’?’ ‘Are you seeing someone?’….. the questions poured in along with the journalists, who were eventually poured some tea with biscuits. The ‘austerity’ of the writer made him even more sellable as a new age Guru, and a pretty blonde journalist swore in her high-pitched voice that meeting him was a transforming experience. ‘He is so… calm’ she breathed eloquently. By evening he was the cover story of all page 3 editions in the tabloids, and headlines loved this new ‘sensation’ as well. The apartment housing his dinghy flat became ‘hot property’ and his odiously grumpy landlord became ‘all smiles’, assuring him that the flat was his and naturally, rent was out of the question.
The anchors of all major news channels were falling over themselves highlighting his glory, and ‘Longing and Lust’ was declared a cult classic, dissected by stone faced critics who said it’s tosh with a spark. The writer met some critical critics personally and assured them of the inaneness of the text, begging them to write worse and decry the book vociferously. These critics felt a change of heart seeing his humble submission and managed to extract literary elements from the text to praise it further. Thanks to their recommendations, the book was approved as a compulsory text in high school (making conservative teachers go read-eared while elaborating the naughty bits). Somehow the writer managed to get in touch with Jihadis and assured them (as an anonymous well-wisher) that the book was highly anti-Islam and hurt Muslim sentiments. Delighted by the idea, they declared a Fatwa on the book (and the author), and burnt his effigy. Spurred by this action, America decided to further establish is stand as the champion of free speech (and not just free war), and decided to protect this son of the soil with a zeal that would have put Mossad to shame, along with making his text tax-free (and it’s said the CIA pumped in money to publish more copies of the book, but that’s just a silly rumour).
It was a rainy night, when everything went beyond his control. As he was about to sit and do some breathing exercises, he got a call on his confidential number from Dave. ‘Listen bro, I know you’ve been acting the recluse for quite some time now, and are more popular than One Republic or JK Rowling, but we’ve got the upper hand over them by a long margin now. We got an anonymous sponsor (not that we needed one, your books have allowed Otter to purchase the entire building where they could barely pay the rent for their floor), and your books are being translated into 89 languages. 89! Can you believe it? I didn’t even know so many languages existed.’ There was a short silence at the other end, then the writer whispered ’89? Are you… are you serious?’. Dave grinned, ‘Yes hombre, we’re riding the eternal wave! Just you wait. You’re going to be etched in the history of mankind’ There was no reply at the other end. Dave suddenly felt anxious. ‘Hello? …hello? You there, man? Don’t hang up on me. Are you all right? Sundar? Answer me!’ An ambulance rushed to the flat, and rushed on to the hospital.
In the water-stained windows pane, drops were rushing about, playing ‘tag’, leaving a crisscrossed trail disturbed by the occasional tap of rain. Lying in the green hospital gown, he thought he saw two shapes sitting casually close to his feet. He closed his eyes, willing his swimming head to relax.
‘Will he make it through?’ Imena whispered. ‘Well, it’s just a teeny heart attack. But even if he doesn’t, his work on us will last forever’, a rumbling voice replied. Imena shook her head, ‘No, he’s not ready for us yet. And his work needs work. Look at the language. Could do with some rigorous coaching’. ‘Doesn’t matter, child. He’s got his tale in the right place, and found a fierce guardian in the process’, twinkled Barastyr. ‘You are going to tell him that you were bluffing, right? It was just about our bet regarding his fame’, Imena asked suspiciously. ‘Well, obviously not. Let him live with the consequences. And they’re good ones. Well, time for me to go, or he’ll go all ack… uck… again, and the doctors will stick more needles in him’, so saying, Barastyr rose and glided out of the window. A light seemed to glow from the tips of the trees at the edge of an endless forest. ‘Goodnight, Imena’ whispered Sundar, and slept.
* Lungi – an Indian wrap-around dress worn on the lower body. It’s quite airy and definitely not to be worn at any formal event, marriage or death.