Fiction | ‘The Reluctant Teller of Tales’ by Mukesh Manjunath | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

For as long as I can remember I have disliked stories. Always. Even when I was five years old and my grandmother told me stories, I found them stupid.

The woman jumped through the burning bus and saved not just her child, but also an old man and his sick wife.

Why would the woman jump through the fire? It makes no sense for her to jump and save the child and the old man and the sick woman. She can make more babies, and those old people are not related to her. And even if they were, they were old. It would make complete sense that they died. What was the point of her illogical and irrational decision? Besides, if it did happen in real life the story would have been, “The woman jumped through the burning bus to save her child. But she died along with the old man and the old woman who were trapped inside.”

Much better. That’s not a story. That’s a fact. Simple, elegant, clean.

Obviously, I couldn’t tell my grandmother that as I did not have the courage of the ten-year-old that I am today. And for someone who told such remarkably illogical stories, she died in an unremarkably straightforward manner: in her sleep surrounded by people she loved. She didn’t know, of course, that of the many who surrounded her, none loved her, but she wouldn’t believe it. It wouldn’t make for a great story. 

But the worst part about that damned woman’s death is that she left me an equally damned letter: 

This is for my dearest Bujji…

Know that I will always be with you, and no matter what you do I will always be by your side. You’ve always been a kind boy and I know you will grow up to be a fine man someday. My last request for you is to complete the story that I had begun to write. You will find the pages hidden in the metal trunk where I keep the letters your grandfather wrote to me. I’ve written it in ink and hope that you complete it in ink, big boy that you are. My blessings will forever be with you.

Love

Your Avva. 

There are many ridiculous things about that letter, not least the fact that she called me Bujji, which on counts of semantics and symmetry is a poor nickname. Besides, the combination of the syllables of ‘bu’ and ‘ji’ is most ungainly and provides ample fodder for my unevolved classmates who mock me for a name I had no choice in. But of course, if they could think as rationally, they would be me. 

The second ridiculous thing about that letter is the insistence that she will be by my side. My poor mother thinks it’s a mark of love but to me it sounded like a threat from the afterlife. I will always be by your side. To my simple parents it sounded like love from the aged matriarch of my house, but I knew what it truly was. The wretched woman would haunt me if I didn’t complete the task she assigned to me. Now, normally to a scientific mind like mine, the afterlife would be absolute, forgive me for my French, bullshit. Ghosts are usually the territory of mild and timid five-year-olds and by the time one spends a decade on this planet one learns to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

But with this particular grandmother of mine, I was sure she would transcend science and come to haunt me even after her passing. I could not take that risk. 

And the final ridiculous element of that godforsaken letter (I use God purely as a crutch to curse not that I actually believe in God) is asking me to complete the story in ink. It’s an enormous task for an adult, let alone for a ten-year-old like me. I never understood why adults struggled so much with technology that they romanticized their primordial past. I don’t romanticize the days when my mother fed me pasty milk powder for milk. 

After another fateful day at school where we learnt about ratios and algebra (if ten-year-olds aren’t trusted with basic integration and differentiation then how can we ever be expected to solve Fermat’s last theorem), I set out to find the papers on which my grandmother had written the story. My mum insisted on my eating the curries she made – okra fry and potato fry. 

“If you eat extra ladies’ finger your mathematix will improve,” my mother said with an unnaturally nasal “tix”. I wanted to tell her so many things. 

Firstly, it’s called okra, not ladies’ finger. Secondly, there has been no scientific study proving the positive impact of ladies’ fingers on a person’s ability to understand mathematics. If that were the case it would have made my father the next Alan Turing but I’ve seen my father unable to prove that he isn’t a robot on a basic business catalog website. Thirdly, if my mathematics improved any further, I’d be far better than any student and teacher in my school and it would mean that my parents would have to shift me to a better school. And I’ve heard my mother and father discuss financial matters, and trust me, it’s in their best interest that I continue where I am. 

But I did not tell my mother any of this because I had been given a task by my ghoul of a grandmother, well, former grandmother. 

As soon as the clock struck nine, I sneaked into bed and pretended to sleep while my father whiled away his time watching the news on the television, and my mother’s eyes were glued to the screen of her laptop while watching pedestrian soap operas or as she liked to call them “daily serials”. I don’t know about mathematics getting better but the two people who I know ate so much okra had the poorest taste in entertainment. 

My parents didn’t take the words of my grandmother seriously because they did not know the extent to which that woman would go to tell a story. Especially if it was a story devoid of logic. But I knew that I had to finish the task ahead of me.

When my father came to my room to check if I was sleeping, I hid under the blanket. 

Bujji. 

He called my name out. I hated it but I had to lie still. A singular misplaced muscle movement and my father would find out about my charade. I made one fatal error though, that could have put me at risk. I always pack my bag and books for the next day but in my haste I forgot and left my bag open with my books strewn around. 

He inspected the room, possibly looking for clues that could give him proof to question me about my true intentions. I heard his footsteps go across the room while I lay hidden under my Popeye blanket, so as to not reveal my face. Of all the arts, I consider performance arts to be the most inferior – far below even storytelling. With its emphasis on pretension and lies, it’s not tough to understand why I despise it. And yet I now found myself in the middle of a grand performance, where I was conscious of my every movement. My own breathing never felt so artificial. What is the rhythm to which I breathe? As my mind waited to solve that equation, my father, even after noticing that my bag lay open, packed my books for me and left the room. 

“He is asleep. Poor thing. Must be really tired. Even his bags weren’t packed,” he said, presumably to my mother. She didn’t reply as my father left the room and shut the creaky door.  

Sentimental fool. Despite his superior size, my father’s weakness was his penchant for the emotional, and that has always gotten the better of him. He could have been marginally more intelligent had he eliminated his emotional quotient completely. 

Soon the lights were out and it looked like my parents had gone to sleep too. Peeling away my Popeye blanket, I stepped out of the room. My first obstacle was the creaky door so I had to be careful with how quickly I move out of the room. I opened the door and to my surprise it did not creak. I looked around to see if my grandmother’s other worldly apparition had taken form and controlled this. 

She must have. 

The corridors of my house had never felt longer. Each step sent a palpitation down into my heart. My footsteps had to be nimble and for that I found crawling on the floor to be the best mechanism to avoid suspicion. Like a baby. 

Can you imagine? Me, the smartest student in a fifteen-kilometer-radius (and this is a conservative estimate) having to kneel down, move on his limbs like a domesticated animal because his ghoulish grandmother was relentless in her pursuit of the illogical. Putting my pride aside, I made my way into her former room.

My mother and father had not disturbed it too much after her death. Maybe they knew that as a ghost she preferred if her room was untouched. I entered with caution. The old wooden door… I know it’s old because of how some of the peeling paint hangs precariously from the door like teeth in my grandmother’s mouth. 

Once in, it wasn’t tough to find the trunk. The green cuboid lay on top of the cupboard and, like a treasure chest to a pirate, it called out to me. Except I had no way of reaching the top of the cupboard without the help of an adult. I’ve never really seen the benefits of being an adult except for longer limbs which can aid in me reaching for jars in which adults hide all the things I love. 

But I had my task cut out for me. If the trunk were to come down it would clatter so it was up to me to reach it. I suppressed my urge to curse my grandmother because who knows what her ghost is up to right now. Speaking of, I think it’s far more beneficial to be a ghost than an adult. 

How does a four-feet-tall boy reach a trunk on top of a ten-feet-high cupboard? How do I conquer the six feet between us? The six feet that stand between my grand mother’s ghastly presence in my life and my freedom to pursue my more terrestrial passions. 

There are multiple ways I could do this. First, I could stack up all the objects in the room and that would probably reduce the gap effectively to three feet. But that would imply me jumping that height, and that would create a ruckus that could wake up parents up. Nope. So, I had to think of something more effective. Second, I could try using each shelf in the cupboard as a step to climb higher. But that would be disastrous for multiple reasons. That method grossly overestimates my upper body strength, the balance of the cupboard, and underestimates the possibility of it not falling over, and more importantly, the cupboard is locked. 

Eureka! And finally, I got it. It is not for nothing that I consider myself superior to the overgrown babies in my class. I could walk on the wall and walk onto the closet. Now I know that to most I might sound manic and if I shared their unscientific mind, I would think the same too. How can one walk on walls? It is the basic use of friction against the force of gravity. Use a pole like object, like a mop, and wedge it tightly against a bed and if you press it hard against itself – voila! Physics will get you on top. Give me a pole long enough and I will climb to the skies. But luckily for me it was just six feet. A trip to the kitchen for the mop and five attempts later, like a treasure hunter who found his chest, I found myself next to the green metal trunk. 

On the cupboard and with my head almost scraping the ceiling I opened the dust covered lid. A few clothes, rags, pens, pins, books whose pages had more creases than my grandmother’s forehead, and many envelopes and inland letter cards. But amidst them a shiny white, brand new envelope stood out. It was obvious whom that was for. I opened it to read the incomplete story written in bad handwriting and black ink. 

Once upon a time there lived a young boy who hated stories. 

Finally, my grandmother had an interesting protagonist. Maybe as she went closer to death her mind began to become a little more scientific. 

Once upon a time there lived a young boy who hated stories. Particularly stories that had magic, fantasy, bravery, love. He believed he knew everything there was to know and if there was something he didn’t know he thought he would get to know all of it in the future. But he felt nobody in his family understood him. All he ever wanted was to pursue knowledge, and everyone in his family found him strange and loved stories. So, one day he saw in a newspaper that there was a place where young children who loved science would be taken into a program where their young brains would be fed into a computer and stored forever. Thus, the brain would be forever alive and would be conducting experiments till the end of time. 

This sounded like a dream come true for the boy. But would his parents and family let him go? They are far too sentimental and foolish to let him pursue knowledge, the boy thought. But he did not want to let go of this opportunity of a lifetime because of the wishes of his parents. Or progenitors as the boy liked to think of them. 

He made up his mind. If he stayed back, he would be as sentimental as his progenitors and that would be unbecoming of someone with his intelligence. So he packed his bags with clothes, and three jam sandwiches, and rupees in the hundreds. Once his parents were asleep and he had convinced them he was asleep too, holding that piece of paper, he marched into the dead of the night to find this dream destination. A place where he could pursue science. A place with other people like him. A place where nobody would ever tell him stories. 

And the story ended there. It was an odd story written by my grandmother different from anything she had written so far. Unlike most of her stories, there were barely any women, any heroism, any unnecessary grandeur, and yet (or perhaps that’s why) it was her best so far. Her best work was incomplete, now left to the whims of a ten-year-old who despises her stories. 

“If you’re listening to me as a ghost. And if you’re behind me now, just know that you’re the worst.”

I couldn’t for the love of me figure out how to complete that story. What happened to the boy after? I definitely couldn’t sleep that night, or the many nights that followed. I could barely stay awake during the days. It affected my circadian rhythm which in turn affected my ability to focus and which in turn affected my performance and slowly piece by piece because of my grandmother’s devious creative contraption I found myself losing my most precious asset – my mind. 

But how does one complete a task one finds so spectacularly repulsive? I listed out the options in front of me. Number one. I do not complete the task and lose my mind. After a surprising amount of deliberation, I rejected that option because the scientific community is clearly in need of an able mind like mine. Option number two. I get a wastrel classmate to fill it in for me and pretend that it is my work. I rejected that option without much deliberation because I could not add my name to that of another’s shoddy work and if my grandmother’s ghost could traverse the walls of my own house, then surely she could hop onto a bus and find me cheating my way out of the task in school. I could barely stand her when she was visible, imagine the horrors she would strike upon me if she was invisible. 

No. There had to be one more option. And there was. It was no Archimedes running down the streets of Greece, but it did occur to me in Science class. 

On a hot afternoon, in a boring class, an underqualified but overconfident science teacher was harping on about basic chemical reactions. 

Molecular structure. Sodium’s reaction with H2O. The experiment of diffusion of potassium permanganate in water. 

All really the kind of stuff used to humour five-year-old wannabe science students. But amidst the surrounding mediocrity I got my answer. Actually, science gifted me my answer. It was right there in front of me. Even when I’m utterly lost in a storm of “storytelling” what should come to my rescue but science. 

What does one do if wants to test a hypothesis in science? One conducts an experiment and tests it and notes down the results of the experiment. In the case of my grandmother’s ridiculous story I shall treat it like an experiment too. Conduct the experiment on myself and note down the happenings and get rid of my grandmother and her ghastly (or should I say ghostly) task. Besides I couldn’t think of a more appropriate person who was comparable to the protagonist of the story than myself. We both had a deep dislike for storytelling and the non-factual, we both had a logical bent of mind, and given the chance to preserve my brain I would gladly do so without the hesitation shown by that young boy in the story. 

I very rarely congratulate myself but this occasion called for special congratulations to myself simply because of how I managed to crawl out of this predicament using science.

I decided which night it would be. A Saturday night.

Why Saturday night? The reasons were threefold. Number one, because all the “daily” serials would stop that day, which meant my mother and father would go out that night. Number two, if I pretended to sleep early that would incentivize them to leave earlier. Number three, sleep deprivation would not affect my performance in academia as the following day I would sleep heartily knowing that I had rid a ghost off my two-feet back.

Like every sixth day, the auspicious Saturday came. I was in bed. Parents had left the house for a film this time. I really must remind them to stop obsessing with staring at screens for prolonged times. It numbs their already dull brains. But that was a battle for another day. 

The house to myself, I did exactly as the protagonist did. I stashed a bundle of twenty-five hundred rupees notes and packed exactly three chutney sandwiches. I wanted to take chutney sandwiches over jam sandwiches because such high quantities of jam in the night would cause hormonal imbalance to my brain particularly in the night. But if the protagonist of the story had an imbalanced brain then I too must commit to it fully. So, I wasted a few more minutes in making three jam sandwiches before I set out at 10:42 pm. I packed a torch for good measure. 

With my ammunition and sense of experiment ready, I ventured out into the darkness with a backpack and a story to finish and a quest: to find the place where intelligence is stored forever in computers. If my grandmother knew of this place without ever stepping out of home, surely other adults would know of this place too. I would walk out and promptly ask them till I’m led to this wonderful cyber palace, and evaluate their offers and packages (I would like an offer that would periodically let me inhabit my body to taste some of my mother’s breakfasts).

The world in the night seemed like a strange place because there was barely as much darkness as I thought there would be. There were lots of towering bright lights and many ferociously fast cars on the road and all the adults outside seemed to be people who didn’t have cars for themselves. 

I had barely taken a few steps outside when I regretted not stepping out with my watch. The unfamiliarity of the night pushed me into fateful decision making already and it forced me to gauge time using the night sky. If early explorers could use the sky so could I. The minute I looked up at the sky I wished I was born centuries earlier or that I could somehow with a magical duster clear the dust and switch off the lights. Barring the North Star and Mars I could barely see any other stars and that meant I could not deduce the time. But there were plenty of lights ahead of me, as if the stars in the sky had been plucked out and carefully placed in apartments, cars, and streetlights. 

Anyway, it felt like I had been outside for about 29 minutes. So, the time must have been around 11:11 pm. 

As I kept walking on the roads, a few adults looked at me quizzically, like I was a prisoner who had escaped. Maybe my striped and matching shirt and pajamas did help their imagination. But most walked away. Say what you will about adults in the family, but adults who are strangers love to remain so – an admirable quality of theirs. But I needed the attention of one adult and none seemed capable of the answers that I was looking for. 

I passed shops and malls that were shut, cows and dogs that roamed as if they took turns with cars taking the mornings, a few adults who smoked cigarettes in dark corners. I’ve always hated the fact that my father smoked in the house because he wasn’t allowed to do so outside but now that adults were doing this so freely in the night, I made a mental note to remind my father to not smoke inside the premises of our house. 

No adult yet seemed to inspire confidence that they may answer my question and two feelings forced me to sit down by a bench on the side of the road; first that of hunger and second that of my shoulders which had begun to ache from carrying the bag. I chose a road that was away from the main road as there were more animals, and fewer cars and adults which meant I could eat in peace. These roads also had adults who walked, as opposed to adults looked like their spines grew out of the driver seats in cars. 

I opened the box so far dreading the jam sandwich and the fact that so far, I had an unremarkable story that my grandmother would despise. Not that I craved validation like insecure adults. I supposed she was fast asleep in my room underneath Popeye blanket as a ghost. It did worry me that my parents would almost be done with the film, but they are far too dull to suspect that I would not be in the room.

Based on the latest position of the North Star and Mars it probably had been 97 minutes since I left my house. I was halfway through the first jam sandwich when I noticed someone looking at me cautiously. She was a woman about the height of my mother although wearing clothes that my mother would never wear; she did look like one of the women from my mother’s “daily serials” had spilled into reality. She smelled strongly of perfume that contained copious amounts of cheap synthetic musk but she seemed ignorant of that fact.

“Hi. What are you doing here?” she asked me. 

“I’m trying to write a story about a young boy.”

She giggled. 

“You’re a young boy,” she said. It was a stupid thing to say and at that point I deduced that she may not be very smart, only slightly more intelligent than my father. 

“It’s a different young boy.” Nothing irritates me more than stating the obvious but as always one has to be courteous to strangers, adults, and adults who are strangers. 

“Why are you looking for a story here? What sort of a story is this?” she asked and giggled again. Maybe each time she asked a question she realized how ridiculous it was and laughed at herself. She might not be intelligent, but she might make for a great sidekick. The greatest scientists had sidekicks and lab assistants so I could do with someone who knew their way around the roads in the night. 

“I’m looking for a place where they can store the memories of young intelligent boys in computers. Do you know where that place is? My grandmother didn’t tell me where the place is.”

She giggled again and frankly it was getting irritating, but for my own interest in her as a potential assistant I tolerated it. 

“So why don’t you just ask her?”

“Because she’s dead.”

Why do adults ask questions for which they can stumble upon answers if they put a little bit of their aged minds?

The woman, without saying anything, sat next to me and now her perfume was even stronger to take. I moved about two feet away from her. 

“You can sit closer to me. I won’t hurt you,” she said. Again. Adults and their false conclusions. 

“I know you won’t. But you smell very bad.” I told her and this time she didn’t giggle. I continued to eat my jam sandwich and all the sugar made me thirsty, and I was cursing myself for adhering so diligently to my grandmother’s story and not packing the chutney sandwiches. 

“Do you know where that place is?” I asked her. 

“I do know where it is.”

“Will you tell me? It’s very important for my story.”

“But what will I get in return? I never do anything for free.”

“You don’t have to do it for free. I can give you two jam sandwiches and some money.”

Her eyes seemed to glow as soon as I converted this into a commercial venture for her. 

“You can keep your sandwiches. But how much money can you give me?” 

I wasn’t an eight-year-old chump to reveal all the money I had. I knew my way around this transaction. 

“I am not going to tell you that.”

“Alright. Give me half the money you have and I will tell you where it is. If you give me the full money I will take you there.”

“Listen, Miss. I don’t need an adult to escort me around. I can find my way there if you tell me where exactly to find it.”

“Alright, go straight and take the second left. Once you’re there you walk straight for about a kilometer and take the next right. Somewhere there.”

“Once I reach there, will they escort me inside?”

“I thought you were old enough to not have to be escorted around?”

Rarely do I admit to having been outplayed by an adult but this woman was tough. She twisted my own words around my tongue. I proceeded to remove thirteen hundred rupee notes from my bag and gave them to her. 

“Listen if you had to get paid exactly in half you would have to give me fifty rupees in change. But don’t. Keep the extra fifty.”

She took the money and stared at the notes. I began to pack up and leave. 

“Listen if you smelled a little better, I would have kept you as an assistant. What’s your name?” I asked her. 

She smiled before saying “Dolly.”

“What a terrible name you have. I always thought mine was bad. Anyway nice to meet you Dolly. My name is Bujji. Thanks for your help.”

As I began to walk away Dolly walked closer to me and held my face in her palms, She kissed me on my cheek and left. I stood there rubbing the saliva off my face and coughing a little in disgust at how suddenly I had to smell the perfume so intensely. 

After another one hundred and forty-nine minutes, and walking straight and taking the second left and walking straight for a kilometer and taking the next right, I reached where Dolly had guided me. And there was nothing but a store that read “Divine Steel Store” with its shutter down. Besides, the street was rather empty with many small stores and none of them looked like they would have a working computer let alone a cyber facility that could store the full potential and extent of my brain as a ten-year-old. 

Clearly, I had been tricked by Dolly. I must congratulate myself on my able judgement of adults as I didn’t give her all of my money or hire her as an assistant. She would have been very bad at her job, impeding my progress. 

I was beginning to get very tired and maybe it was the jam sandwich or maybe it was dealing with the incompetence of an adult whom I thought I could trust, but I had completely lost track of how much time it had been since I left home. And again, I’m not one to usually fear ghosts or such phantoms of the night but I was far away from home and if I were one to apply the laws of species to ghosts, surely, the presence of grandmother as a ghost clearly meant there were other ghosts too. And while with my grandmother I could negotiate my terms owing to her foolish sentimentality, these ghosts so far away from my house might not have such familial feelings or attachments towards me. 

I was thirsty and hungry but I couldn’t eat the jam sandwiches because they would make me thirstier. On an empty, purring stomach, by design it was imperative that I had to head back home. I would have never used such language, but if it weren’t for my goddamn grandmother I would be sleeping right now and would wake up at a normal time so that I could spend Sunday morning catching up on the reruns of all Popeye from last week.

It’s the one time nobody watches the news or “daily serials” and that has been ruined by my grandmother and her moronic quest left for me has me far away from home looking for a place that only she probably knew the exact location of.

I hate stories. If and when I make that discovery that changes the world and I become the leader of the country it would be mandatory for all my citizens to take Science classes. Especially if they are grandmothers. And just for the sake of safety I will ban any screen that shows “daily serials” and news. If fathers and mothers spent some time monitoring the illogical tales that their parents spewed, the world would be a far better place. 

On my way back there was an eerie stillness to the roads as even the animals had vacated the space to make way for ghosts presumably. Hopefully my grandmother had put in a few good words for me from the afterlife. A few thin polythene covers floated across space like helium balloons as if they were losing gas. 

Cautious steps took me on the path back to home. I was fortunate enough to be born with the brain I had but any of the other students from my school would have crumbled. If I met Dolly on the way I would surely tell her that her sense of navigation was thoroughly useless and she would get crushed in the world of science and academia. 

I took a left turn when I saw two men slowly walk towards me. They had long beards and droopy eyes like ripe, succulent mangoes. They looked like the kind of people that my father despised when he saw the news. At first, I thought they were fellow travelers in the night, but soon I realized they were walking towards me. With purpose and intent. 

Then within a second, the bigger one of them lifted me off the ground and had me slung on the shoulder while the other tried to do something to my face. I tried to fight them off but as I stated my upper body strength could only do so much. I tried biting the fingers of the smaller one but they tasted and felt disgusting. Despite my scientific mind I have never tasted the skin that snakes shed but I presume they would taste like the smaller one’s fingers. I kicked my legs – a lesson I learnt in swimming – if it worked against nature. But no. He latched onto me and would not let me go. My bag had been ripped and in the commotion my sandwiches had fallen down and gotten squashed under the feet of the smaller one. 

“There’s money in the bag. You can take it if you want!” I screamed. The smaller one smacked me on the mouth hard with his disgusting fist and at that moment, I am ashamed to admit, I began to cry. For three reasons. Number one. It hurt. Number two. I was worried that my newly formed permanent teeth would be compromised robbed of their quality. This meant I would look like my grandmother and that was never aspirational. Number three. I had lost my sense of direction and had no idea where my house was even if these two were to drop me right now. In short, all the data I had gained so far was useless. 

As I was being taken the smaller one ripped the bag off my shoulder and he slung it around his shoulder and began to run. And then the bigger one came to halt. As if he was stopped by some unnatural force. The smaller one stopped too. The bigger one let go of his grip a little and then I noticed that some blood had been streaming from my mouth. That wasn’t good news for three reasons. 

First, it meant – alright I think everyone knows why blood streaming is bad. It’s the same reason thrice. It hurts. 

I turned around to see what force it was that stopped the brute on whose shoulder I was hanging from. 

“Dolly.” I tried to smile bravely but my lips hurt.

“Ganga. Let him go. He’s from my area. He’s mine.” Dolly said. I wondered if she didn’t hear me. 

“Dolly…” I said her name a little louder. The smaller one almost punched me and when I cowered in fear, he retracted his hand having made his point. Classic adult tactics, I thought. 

“How can you say that? He wandered into my area. We get to keep him. As Radha.” the bigger one said. 

“Yes Dolly. We saw him outside Divine Steel Store. He’s ours.” This time the smaller one spoke. 

“I am not asking you to let him go. I’m telling you to let him go. He’s my area kid. So he’s mine.” 

The two goons looked at each other and reluctantly, like the gas cylinder that my mother makes my father carry, they dropped me onto the ground. 

“Dolly.” I said again. This time I said it without the fear of getting punched and smiled and the coagulated blood across my lips made it hard for me to move my lips. But Dolly was busy staring angrily at the two goons as if they got caught cheating in exams. And at that moment, they did look like my guilty classmates as they walked away slowly towards Divine Steel Store. The smaller one also dropped my bag. Surely Dolly would make a great assistant. 

And then Dolly did the most wonderful thing ever. She picked me up from the ground, slapped my buttocks for the dust that had accumulated on them, and like a pot, placed me between her shoulders and armpit. And Dolly started walking away. 

“Where are you taking me Dolly?”

“Where do you stay?”

“It depends on where we are right now.”

Dolly paused and held my hair like the leaves of a pineapple and looked at me with contempt. “Are you a stupid child?”

“No. I’m actually the smartest child I know. In fact I’m smarter than most children I know. You’re the only one –”

“Tell me where you stay.”

“I stay 97 minutes away from where we first met. The North Star and Mars were roughly equidistant to the moon.”

Dolly looked at me like I was being ridiculous. She may be great with brutes but not the best with facts. 

“If I take you there will you manage to find your way back home?”

“I can. But Dolly first I must finish my grandmother’s story. I need to find the place where the brains of uber intelligent children are stored in cyber networks.” As we walked more Dolly’s grip did not lose its firmness and so I chose to rest my head on her back. After tasting the smaller one’s hand in my mouth, Dolly’s musky smell didn’t seem that repulsive, and in fact it was far superior to the revolting odour of the brutes which I was sure was because they didn’t brush or bathe that night. From Dolly’s shoulder, I was watching the city go by me comfortably like in a rearview mirror. 

“Look, your grandmother obviously lied to you Bujji. There is no place like that in the real world.” Dolly said, but this time she didn’t sound as irritated as before. 

“You’re right Dolly. That woman made up a lot of silly stories, Dolly, and she would expect me to believe them, Dolly.”

“Don’t call me Dolly so much.”

“It’s a nice name, Dolly. It’s better than mine. Bujji.”

Dolly giggled. 

“Why did you hate your grandmother’s stories so much?”

“They would be so unrealistic. People did unbelievable things. There were horses that spoke. They could never happen in real life.”

“Then why are you so adamant about finishing the story?”

“Because she might haunt me as a ghost. I wanted to get rid of her for good in case she holds a grudge against me, Dolly.”

“You’re an idiot, Bujji.” Dolly said. 

I tried not getting offended by the statement as Dolly was clearly in control of the situation. I rest my head on her shoulders and let Dolly do the work before I fell asleep. 

I woke up with Dolly shaking my head in the exact same spot that Dolly and I first met. She leaned over me and woke me up gently. I made a mental note to remind my mother to wake me up in such a manner. While it did not shake away my sleep all at once, it did not send panic down my body either. 

“Can you go to your house from here?”

“Can you come with me? What if those two are there again on the way?” I asked. I lied to Dolly. It was not fear that motivated my request but rather that I enjoyed her company as I walked home. 

Dolly giggled. 

“If you meet anyone, tell them you know Dolly. Now go.” Dolly said.

“If you come with me, Dolly, I will give you the remaining money.” I said.

Although Dolly didn’t giggle, she took my hand and we began to walk in the direction of my house. “Dolly what time is it?”

“It’s almost 4.30 in the morning.”

“What is the exact time Dolly?” Even though that irritated her, she obliged and told me the exact time anyway. It had been three hundred and fifty-three minutes since I left home. I continued to guide Dolly towards my house. 

“Bujji, what will you tell your parents when they ask you where you were?”

“I will tell them the truth. I will tell them I was with Dolly.”

“What if they ask you who is Dolly. Then what will you say?”

“I will tell them you’re my assistant.”

As we reached closer home, Dolly let go of my hand. It was signal that I should take it forward from here. Dolly was a woman of a few words and a lot of action. That’s what I liked about her. I reached into my bag to take out the remaining money and hand it over to her. I am not a man of commerce but I like to keep all transactions devoid of deceit. I am sure Dolly appreciated it. 

“I am not going to take money from you.”

“Dolly as an adult it is your responsibility to teach me never to fail on my word especially if it involves money.” Dolly reluctantly took the money from me and I wondered if it wasn’t sufficient for her services. I probably should have asked my father what the correct price would be. 

“Don’t leave Dolly. You can come home and sleep in my grandmother’s room. My father will pay you if you think it’s not enough money.” I said. 

“Bujji. Listen. Your grandmother was a smart woman. She wasn’t telling you bad stories. In the real world anything can happen. Worse than horses speaking. Don’t ever come out alone in the dark again.”

I nodded. 

“But what about her story? I have to complete it.” And before I could complete that sentence Dolly spoke again. 

“Shut up. If you think your grandmother’s ghost is around you, it’s the best thing that could happen to you. Finish the story ten years later. Twenty years later. Keep the ghost around you until you’re a big man. Bigger than the ones who tried to take you away.”

Dolly drew me towards her body and hugged me and I hugged her back too. 

“Dolly, you know, my grandmother used to tell me this illogical story about a woman who jumped into a burning bus to save the lives of a baby, an old man, and an old woman. It was the most senseless story of all time, Dolly. I hated it. But I think if you were that woman, Dolly, I would believe that story.”

Still hugging, Dolly then proceeded to kiss my cheek for the second time that night. This time I didn’t wipe her saliva away. Dolly then walked away back into the city. 

I ran towards my house. 


Mukesh Manjunath is a writer currently based out of Mumbai. He has previously published in The Wire, EPW, and The World of Apu. He is working on his debut non-fiction book titled The Age of Heroes to be published by Harper Collins India.  He received his Integrated Masters in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras, Chennai. 

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