“And then madam, then my father threw me into the sea so that we could save my sister. She was only three, poor girl, when we were attacked by the crocodile.”
“Really? Where was this?”
“Oh, I was in Lakshwadeep islands.”
This was in the middle of yet another story in Manju’s repertoire. Something to leave people wanting to know more about him. To make them think he was charming and captivating. Something that made him think that way about himself. As Manju weighed all the newspapers and magazines, calculating how much he would have to pay for all this, he had spun his ‘real-life story’ on how he ended up in these circumstances. He would, of course, be back in a month or so. They always called him back. The newspapers and magazines never stopped. They weren’t used after a month or so. Maybe they could be used for lining the shelves, or cleaning the mirrors. But even for those, there were substitutes now. Shinier or softer stuff- which meant all of these papers were plain old trash.
Manju wondered whether they were read at all. If read, then were they read properly? Whether anyone really read the small print where they announced somebody dying, or whether they actually read when the chemistry exam papers were leaked. He knew they didn’t- that’s how he got his stories.
“Manju bhaiya, tea?”
“No madam, tea causes me to have immense problems nowadays”
“Oh! why so?”
“Actually madam, I went to the doctor when I developed a strange rash on the back of my neck and he said that there are certain chemical compounds in Chai that don’t work with certain genetic builds. I’m better now madam.”
After some meandering about researches Manju winds up, takes the newspapers, pays 120 rupees and leaves with his ‘assistant’.
“What rash?” Gopi, said assistant, asks in the elevator, trying to lug the bundle of newspaper.
“Nothing” Sighs Manju “They why mention it” “No reason”. Gopi did not understand his brother’s narratives. Sometimes Gopi was the assistant, occasionally he was rescued from the circus. Now and then Manju was an erstwhile grave digger, sometimes he would be a Bangladeshi refugee running away from a clothing conglomerate after burning the factory down. This one time Manju gave the story that he used to be a security guard in a big jewellery store and had single handedly stopped a heist, much before the police arrived. Also, one time Manju was a hawaldar in the police and then he took a retirement because he couldn’t take all the pressure and stress.
They both reached the ground floor of the apartment. Manju of course, stopped to speak with the security guard and give him advice, on account of him having been through it all. Then they proceeded to walk out towards their raddhi shop (junkyard for selling old newspapers) down the road. After they reached, they both flopped down on the low stools and sat under the fan on full speed, which was rarely ever enough.
Manju took out a droopy looking cigarette from his pocket and lit it. Then as he was wont to do, he picked up one of the magazines and started leafing through them. Gopi closed his eyes and sat for a while, a tiny, almost unnoticeable frown on his brow. He was worried about his son’s behaviour. He was beginning to lie to him about things. Why though? He wondered. He had never shouted at him, he never raised a hand to him. One more thing to find out. When he opened his eyes Gopi saw Manju taking a small kullad of chai from the tea seller. Rash, my foot, he thought. If he gets rash from the tea, then I get knee pain from the air.
Manju sat sipping on his tea, reading the astrology section, and then the fashion section. After a bit of tea and smoking, Manju had already read one magazine and a whole newspaper. Gopi gets a call on his mobile phone, from a possible client. “No it’s the raddhi shop. You can sell newspapers books etc for the current rate.” “9 rupees per kg.” “Okay, madam, in half an hour, where?” “Okay”. They have more work.
Thus they get up and walk to another house. Where Manju will of course spin another tale. This time, he has decided, he will say he used to be an astrologer, or maybe that he still is practicing it. Manju knew why he did it. In fact he knew why his nephew lied. He also knew that Gopi was always irritated or puzzled or shocked, but he did not know why this was. He needed stories. He needed to not only know stories. He needed to be one every time. As with stories, you always need a new one. He felt powerful. Holding reality, feeding them lies, filling them up with wonder and with hope, with alarm and excitement. Well, that’s why he did it. If we are who we say we are, and we like what we say we like, then Manju wanted to be as many people as possible.
Same drill- security guard, going to the elevator, going to the house. Starting with a tale. Telling so many innocuous lies that it was difficult to separate truths from lies. The madam was not there, the man said. He could give the newspapers and books though. This man was not like his regulars. He listened to the stories, almost amused. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when he mentioned anything which was almost too incredible. Perhaps it would have been nice if there was someone else to listen to the stories, this wasn’t nearly as fun, thought Manju.
This was fun, thought Ravi. An ex-astrologer who predicted the death of so many people, and ‘helped’ them not befall the tragedy! And he had developed warts from hot water. He listened to it all, controlling his chuckles.
Later that night, when Ravi went to give his daughter a kiss good night, he stopped to tell her a story. He told her elaborate tales- of dragons and dungeons, unicorns and centaurs. About the time one could light the whole universe with a single candle. About trains that never stopped. He saw excitement in his daughter’s eyes, her many questions on the story and the way he could tell she was almost in the glowing garden, or swimming with the mermaids. This was thrill, this was making someone believe in things you knew didn’t happen.
He knew. He knew why that man did it.