On a quiet night, in a quiet neighborhood, twenty quiet police officers quietly broke into a quiet man’s quiet house, arrested him and quietly took him away.
When he woke up, he was alone in a large, dark room with a bright light shining on him. He called out, for someone must be listening, but no one replied. He called out again, then shouted, but no one came. He got angry and shouted, cursed and rocked his chair. His hands were tied to the back and his feet were tied to the legs of the metal chair and did not budge. He tried hard and long, but he could not move an inch. At long last, he noticed a small red light switch on, right next to the bright light glaring in his face. A voice spoke from somewhere behind that light, booming into the room, “Please state your name, age and occupation. Also state your reason for betraying your country.”
He looked on, bewildered. He didn’t understand, had he been mistaken for a terrorist and arrested? He had thought till then that he had been kidnapped, but this changed the situation. The Voice repeated the question. He hurriedly answered with his name and other details, but did not answer to the last part. The Voice asked again. He simply said that he was not a traitor.
Somewhere, a latch opened and ten men stepped in. They beat him up until all he could do was whimper. He had been tossed down to the ground during the beating, his clothes torn and his body bruised. They set him back up, applied medicine and went away. The light was still glowing on his face. The Voice asked once again, “Please state your reason for betraying your country.”
He sat there, speechless, helpless and on the verge of crying. He tried to say that he was not a traitor, but the words did not leave his lips. The Voice asked him to think long and hard. The light was switched off, leaving him with his darkness.
Over what seemed to be the next few days, the light would come on at some point, the Voice would ask him the same questions and he would again fail to answer, the men would again step in and beat him up and he would once again, be left in the darkness. Over time, he began to enjoy the darkness, even though a brutal beating preceded it. He was at peace with himself during the darkness and could even catch some rest, even in that uncomfortable position. This change was noticed by the Voice and soon, the beatings increased. The Voice would switch off the light and then switch it on quickly, to catch him unaware. He also noticed that while they always avoided his vital organs, the men who came in got more brutal as time went on, not caring if he was crying, hurt or worse. He shit himself, he peed in his clothes and he cried as long as he had tears. Then the tears dried off and the piss stopped flowing. But the beatings continued and so did the questioning.
At some point, they started coming in to change his clothes and feed him. He didn’t have the power or the will to resist, so he let them do as they pleased with his body. They would sometimes bathe him, sometimes apply medicine and always feed him, initially with solid food and then by a pipe. He didn’t notice what went inside his mouth. It could be poison for all he cared. All that mattered was that he hold on to the truth, that he was not a traitor. He had to hold on, for all of his family and loved ones. His family! He remembered them, though the beatings made the memory vague and fleeting. He thought about them and that gave him strength. He thought about his wife and children, his parents, his friends and his cousins. As the days went by, he started forgetting. He thought about how they looked or talked, but all he could remember were vague snippets of them. He tried to hold on with all of his strength, but one day, they were gone. He spent that time in darkness, even though the light and the Voice came and went every day, or perhaps every few hours, he was no longer sure.
Once, he started thinking about his life or what little he remembered of it. He remembered his childhood, his dreams and aspirations as he grew up. He remembered the heartbreaks he had suffered through along the way, some by others, some by himself. He thought about how his priorities changed as his life progressed. He thought about how his dream job changed from that of a writer to that of an engineer. He remembered bits and pieces of it, but what he remembered the most was the anger he had with himself when he had to leave his dreams behind. He thought about how unsatisfactory his life had been and how he’d made it hell for himself and the people around him. He decided that when he got out of here, he’d go back to his dreams and pursue them. This gave him strength. That night, the men beat him up even more than usual.
The next time he was lucid, he decided that it didn’t matter where he was or when he’d get out of here. He looked up and stared into the light and spoke, as clearly as he could, “You know who I am and what I do. You even know I am not a traitor,” he flinched and expected the men to come out and start beating him, but they did not. Perhaps they were finally listening? He continued, “What you do not know is what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer and right now, it seems that this is as good a time as any to start. I do not know who you are or how many of you are out there, listening to this, but if you are there, here’s a story.”
He then took a deep breath and started. He remembered the plot of a story he had thought of when he was a child. It involved aliens, dragons, giants and heroes and it was awesome. He started narrating, slowly at first and then, as the story developed in his mind, faster. He often went back to correct things in the story, to add a plot, a character or to introduce a new idea, but he kept pressing forward linearly. He spoke for a long time, not knowing if it was minutes or days. His throat dried, his stomach growled and he felt the pain of every broken part of his body, but he pressed on. After a long time, the light was switched off, along with the red dot, and he knew they were no longer listening. After a few hours, they switched on the light again and the Voice asked him the same few questions. The men came and beat him up, but this time, they left quickly. He breathed deeply and began the story where he’d previously left off. As soon as he spoke the first word, the men came in again and beat him up. When they went, he started again. They came back and from then onwards, they came back many, many times. He always expected them to keep coming back, but his thirst to tell the story was bigger than theirs to beat him up and they would leave him be every day, after a few beatings. He thought of it as an elegant way to communicate and he told them so. He would later mention how he’d been kept in this isolation for no reason and how, through sheer will, he had communicated with the men better than anyone ever would have.
One day, he started talking and almost instantly, they came to beat him, this time quite violently. When they went away, he had been left in the worst shape he’d ever been in, but he raised his head and spoke to the camera, to add another author’s note to the story, “I do not know how long you intend to keep me here or how long I will survive. But I have borne this story out of myself and will keep on speaking as long as there’s a voice in my body. After my voice dies, I will speak no more, but will keep writing the story in my mind. If you will give me a pen and paper, I will use these broken hands to write as much as I can. Then I will use some other tool. As long as I am alive, this story is alive and as long as this story is going on, I will live.” He stopped after this and cried for a very long time. Then he started speaking again. From that point onwards, the men never came to beat him up. He would start the day by answering to the Voice and then continue the story. He built a vast landscape in his mind and a large number of characters, always adding more and going back to change their histories. The red dot listened quietly.
A time came when he recognized that the story was about to end. He wanted to write a fitting end to it, so he fell silent for many days, thinking and thinking but not speaking. They came in to feed him, clothe him, bathe him, talk to him and ridicule him. They did not once try to hit him. They knew it was of no use.
Finally, he spoke. He started the last part of the story and proceeded to relate it to them. The dragons were dying, the aliens were betraying and the Heroes were falling. But the story went on. As the end neared, he picked up the pace. He spoke quickly, almost too fast. He barely ate and even when they came to feed him, he refused the food, instead just speaking quickly, as though time was running out. It was. He grew weak and despondent. The climax was nowhere to be seen and he was always speaking, always hurrying along the lines of the text that was flowing into his mind from an unknown place. He tried hard to finish but the story had a life of its own, refusing to come out before its time, before his time was over. He went on for days, but could not finish. Sometimes he would be muttering in his sleep, the story lashing out of his body in spasms.
At long last, a weak and frail man sat, bound, in front of the floodlight and the red dot, looked at them and spoke, “Today the story ends.” With a smile, he started dictating, the story flowed like a river from him parched lips. By the end of the day, he reached the story’s end. He closed the chapter and the book with a flourish, bringing peace to the kingdom. The light shut off and the author slept.
The next day, he woke up. He was frail, almost too weak to even be staring into the blinding light. He did not wait for the Voice to ask him, he simply stated his name, occupation, age and the fact that he was not a traitor. He then sighed. Apparently, death was not so easy to attain. He opened his mouth and spoke, “So, let us continue on to the next story…”
Many years later, two men, cleaning the floor in the now defunct prison, came across a huge stack of tapes.
“Dude, what’s this?”
“Interrogation tapes of people arrested and kept in this place some twenty years ago.”
“What are we supposed to do with them?”
“Well, the boss said to burn them, but we could watch them if we wanted to”
“Nah, I don’t care. Burn ’em and let’s get this over with. This place gives me the creeps.”
Engaging and thoughtful, on many levels.
Enjoyable from beginning to end.