Around the Bend
( A radio play about storytelling. Stories were born much before us and they will stay around long after we die. In many Indian languages, to say someone left his story behind means he died. If the story is alive and he died, he might as well come back to relate it on moonlit Fridays.)
Thomas (as the narrator): When some people asked me to write a radio play on ghosts, I couldn’t think of a good idea. So, I asked them whether some of my experiences in a deserted house in a village in north Kerala would be good enough. They said it was all right so long as it didn’t sound too realistic or too boring. I told them that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction and they said they sincerely hoped this would a strange enough truth. The incidents I am going to narrate here are known to me, my wife and Bhaskaran, our cook. I have managed to live on my own writing for the last six years. Writing as a career posed only one problem. To meet my deadlines, I needed more than what was available at home: a drink or two in the evening, complete silence and fresh air. I always found this, often for a dear price, far away from home, among the hills on the Western Ghats. I also liked to have good food three or four times a day and Bhaskaran who accompanied me on all those occasions could provide me with that. He was an excellent cook, a good companion and spoke only when he was spoken to. Quite unlike Mary, my wife. The incidents narrated in this radio play happened on such a sojourn as is mentioned above. With all the materials to write a book on the recent developments in the Middle East, I went with Bhaskaran to a deserted house on the top of a hill, skirted by coffee plantations. As many of the stories that I wrote as a school student, this was also on a dark and stormy night……
(a phone rings persistently and we hear Thomas waking up and cursing out loud, mumbling to himself, calling Bhaskaran and then answering the phone. But once he learns who is on the other side, he is quite warm and happy.)
Thomas (younger voice) (over the phone): Good Morning, Queen Mary. I just woke up. Could sleep only very late. I had set the alarm at five o’ clock, planning to go for a walk. Didn’t even hear it. Bhaskaran! He is fast asleep in the other room. The taxi driver is also with him. No, no. There was only one taxi available at the railway station and that chap knew this place, fortunately. Not that much. But well above forty kilometers. It is quite steep with hairpin curves and all that. Say thanks to Brigit if she calls. Well, he couldn’t go back after dropping us here. In fact, he went and came back. The car’s headlight failed or something he said. So, we had to let him stay back here for the night. He wouldn’t have made it past the third curve with no headlight. ..Yes, yes. I put the bags in my room only and bolted my door properly. You are right, can’t trust such guys. Bhaskaran? He is really tough, though he looks quite lean and weak. No one rubs him the wrong way. Yeah, you don’t know him really. He picks up fights with almost any stranger and never trusts anyone. OK, OK, he is just the opposite of me. Why else do you think I take him everywhere I go.
(Knocks on the door and Bhaskaran calls him)
Bhaskaran: Sir, sir…
Thomas: Mary, I will call you later. Seems like our tough guy is on the loose. (loudly) Wait a minute, let me open the door.
(Sound of the door opening.)
Bhaskaran (agitated): He is gone sir, the driver. Didn’t you lock the front door?
Thomas: Since you two were still chatting when I went to bed, I didn’t care to lock it. Just closed it only. You didn’t know when he left?
Bhaskaran: No. When I woke up, he was not there in the room. I went out and even his car was not there. He said he had parked it outside the gate. It was not there. Anyway, nothing is missing. The money you had given me yesterday was under my pillow and it is still there. Idiot! He should have at least told us.
Thomas: Anyway, good riddance. Thank god, he didn’t murder you in your sleep and run away with the money. He could have killed me too. He is not an idiot. We are the idiots. Never trust a stranger.
Bhaskaran: That is what I always tell you.
Thomas: Let’s go for a walk. If you have not made some coffee yet, don’t bother. We can go and have a cup of tea as well. He said there is a tea shop somewhere down there. May be we can also have our breakfast there. You lock up the room. I want to call home.
(sound of dialing a phone)
(sounds of doors being closed; footsteps, and a creaky gate being closed)
Thomas:(over the phone) Hello May! I already have a story to write: The strange disappearance of the Taxi Driver. Yes, the guy just vanished. No, he didn’t take anything. Yeah, we don’t know him. We found him at the railway station. Funny fellow. He slept with Bhaskaran in the other room. Even when I went to bed, I could hear them still chatting. This morning when Bhaskaran woke up, the chap had vanished. He is a young fellow. Interesting character. Very good at story telling. Told us several stories about his night rides and such stuff. When I got bored, I said good night and went to my room. I don’t know why he left without telling us. Yeah, probably; he would have tried to wake us up and we would have been fast asleep. Even the alarm couldn’t wake me up. Yes, Bhaskaran is here. I will give it to him.
(loudly) Bhaskaran, it is Mary, she wants to talk to you. Leave it, I will lock it.
Bhaskaran: Amma, I didn’t want to let him in. But sir let him. No, nothing has been taken away. Yes, I am going with him. Don’t worry. I will take care of him. No, I will be careful. The tea shop is farther down. I will arrange some milk today itself. OK Amma.
(Phone is switched off; footsteps on the gravel)
Thomas: It is still very cold. And foggy too. Let’s walk down. When did you sleep last night?
Bhaskaran: O, it was very late when I went to sleep. He didn’t let me. He went on telling his stupid stories. After some time, I closed my eyes and acted like snoring and it was only then that he stopped.
Thomas: What kind of stories?
Bhaskaran: His own cock and bull stories. He is a mean fellow. He smiles and talks well and is extremely polite. Taxi car is only his side business. Really, he is a pimp.
Thomas: Did he say that?
Bhaskaran: No he didn’t say exactly that. He was talking about all the girls he had chased, hunted and stalked. He made it sound like he was hunting them down for himself. Or that they were hunting him down. But, it was clear that he is just a small-time pimp.
Thomas: Nothing strange, with a railway station to this side, a hill station and resorts to the other side and he being a taxi driver who takes night rides. He is young and may want to make some extra money.
Bhaskaran: Extra money, extra trouble. The worst is that he was trying to see if he could get some business from us too!
Thomas: Was he!
Bhaskaran: You don’t know such people, sir. They are not to be seen in books. But they are everywhere. He told me several stories. Wasn’t there a Charlie, your friend?
Thomas: Yes, Brigit’s brother. This house used to be Charlie’s. He is no more and now it is his sister’s. He died in a car accident.
Bhaskaran: This guy knew Charlie and they were in very good terms. That is why he could recognize his address when we asked him. But he didn’t want to let you know all this. From what he told me, Charlie used to share all his secrets with this guy. He suggested that there were a whole lot of things about Charlie and he didn’t want you to know any of them. Though, he didn’t mind telling me some.
Thomas: Really! I really would like to know a few things about Charlie. What did he tell you about Charlie?
Bhaskaran: He was not talking exactly about Charlie. He was talking about himself. He had roped in several girls for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of his customers and some high level officers. He had brought one for Charlie also. But, that was a tragic incident. The girl ran away that same night and committed suicide. He had got that girl from the railway station and no one else had seen her. So, there was nothing connecting him or Charlie to that incident. But Charlie had to spent a fortune to silence the police. In fact, that is why Charlie left this coffee plantation and went back to Bangalore.
Thomas: I know that story. Charlie himself told this to me. I couldn’t imagine I would ever meet the guy who brought that girl here for Charlie. What Charlie had told me was that he had got a girl from somewhere and that she ran away that same night and that her dead body was found in a pool at the foot of this hill the next day.
Bhaskaran: My God! I didn’t know all this. You never told me anything like this. It was only when Doctor Amma told me that one of your friends died in a car accident in Bangalore that I heard Charlie’s name for the first time. Does she know this story?
Thomas: No, she doesn’t. She knows both of them. She and Brigit were classmates in Nimhans. That is how I met Charlie. Brigit was always worried about her brother’s lifestyle. He had taken to drugs and all that. It was only after their mother died that he changed a little bit. But, I am sure whether it wasn’t the other incident that changed him. He died within a year after that incident.
Bhaskaran: While I was in the kitchen, the taxi driver was talking to you quite a lot. What was he telling you?
Thomas: He was not telling me anything. I found he was holding back something. So, I was making him talk. He couldn’t resist the temptation to tell stories to an eager listener but at the same time, he didn’t want to tell me much. So, he came up with some unbelievable stories, one after the other, mostly about ghosts and stuff. I was interested more in real stories since people like him may have a lot of inside information about the dark lives of people. I hoped to get the thread of a novel from him. But he disappointed me. Once, I spent a night at a railway station and the signalman told me a very good story and I was able to develop a full movie script from that.
Bhaskaran: I remember that. And you paid him handsomely, right? We have walked a lot now and I can’t see any tea shops here.
Thomas: Let’s walk a bit more. What is the hurry? You only have to prepare our lunch today and I don’t have much to do either.
Bhaskaran: I think we may not even get a tea today, forget the breakfast. If you don’t mind, I am willing to walk all the way down to the valley. From here onwards, it is really steep and full of hairpin curves. Walking back is going to be way too hard. Sir, did he tell you anything interesting?
Thomas: Everything he said was of some interest to me. He didn’t tell me anything about his game hunting. As I told you, they were all spooky stories. They were all about ghosts and goblins. Kid stuff, mostly.
Bhaskaran: He is very clever. He can cook up any number of stories. And he is an excellent story-teller. I was too tired to listen to him. Or, I would have sat up all night listening to him. And, it was also good that I didn’t listen to his spooky stories. I am actually scared to listen to such stories.
Thomas: Are you scared to listen to them in this broad daylight too? What if I tell you a story?
Bhaskaran: I may or may not get scared of them depending on how convincing the story is. I think I know all your tricks by now. I have read almost all the books you have written, at least all the storybooks. But sir, I think when it comes to storytelling, doctor Amma can tell stories better than you. You are good at writing them, but not so good at telling them. Once she told me a story you had written and it made me cry.
Thomas: I always knew that she is good at cooking up things. Anyway, I want you to listen to this story. It is good to walk and tell stories. What else is there to talk about? This is one of the stories that our driver told me. I am recounting it in my own way. As he told me, this is not a story. It really happened.
Bhaskaran: I am ready to listen. If the story is too shocking and I pass out, please don’t leave me here.
(sound of a car speeding by)
Sir, be careful, these drivers are not used to city men. They don’t know you are a famous writer. So, please keep to the side.
Thomas: This story doesn’t happen on a hillside like this. It happens in a city. First, we are in a bar and the time is close to ten o’ clock. There is very little light but there is a lot of smoke settling down in the hall. There is some soft western music which can be hardly heard. People are not talking so loudly now as they used to be an hour ago. Everyone is either drunk or tired and the bar is about to close. Those who are still there are all their usual customers. They usually leave only when the shutter is half down and then again they ask for a drink or two. After that, they usually walk out and drive home. Hopefully, everyone reaches home somehow, though there are occasional accidents and a few may end up in the police station and spend their night there.
Bhaskaran: What is so scary about all this? I often see this in real life whenever I travel with you.
Thomas: Can you just listen for a few more minutes? Then you will get your chance to comment. In one corner of the bar, there is a young man sitting with his face down. His car key is on the table. He seems to be in some internal agony. Something is eating him and he is not eating anything. He is really drunk. He doesn’t look up even when the waiter brings him the bill. He draws out his purse and takes out a thousand rupee note and mumbles something to the waiter and ambles towards the door. The waiter calls him from behind and hands him the car key. He hugs the waiter and tries to say thanks but fails to do so. The waiter turns his face and softly pushes him away. The man manages to get out. The guard at the door helps him walk down the steps. There is only one car left in the parking lot. He moves towards that. It is an expensive car, noted for its speed and pick up. He gets in and starts the car. It moves like an untamed wild beast, with a soft purr. The rain comes down heavily on the car and a bolt of lightning rips through the thick darkness for the thunder to come out like a wild beast. The guard anxiously watches the scene and when the car gets out of the gate, like water from a flood gate, he crosses himself.
Bhaskaran: My God!
Thomas: See you are already hooked and anxious. I think I should tell you the rest of the story later.
Bhaskaran: No, no, I take back my word. Sir, you can also tell stories. Please don’t stop.
Thomas: His car is now speeding through the city. The rain has subsided and the chill in the air has made our man soberer. There are only a few people on the street, only those ones who have the guts to dare the heavy downpour and the gusty wind. He slows down the car and starts to look left and right through the car window. Everyone is covered in raincoats or is sheltered under umbrellas. The unsteadiness in his eyes is gone and so is their foggy appearance. In its place, one can see only the flares of lust, the hunger felt all over his body. He stops the car near a lady and asks her something and she abuses him and spits at him. He speeds up again. He is almost near the city limits and is eagerly looking in both directions now. A lady, quite unaware of the danger, crosses his path. It was a close call. He swerves the car to the left. The front wheel hits the curb and the car stops. He is enraged and he puts his head out, about to curse her. But she is not there. She appears on the left, bends down and pushes half of her head in. She says ‘hi’ and he melts off like a scoop of ice cream in summer. Her luxuriant hair hangs about her face and the air is filled with the scent of jasmine flowers on her hair. He unlocks the door, she opens it, gets in and sits with him and says ‘let’s go’.
Bhaskaran: She iss wearing a white sari. From here, I can continue. He sees the cross hanging from his neck and struggles to get out.
Thomas: Nothing like that. The car turns around and cuts through the city in the opposite direction. It soon takes a different path and enters the highway. It slows down. Traffic is quite sparse. The rain gets worse and it lashes against the car window. The tall trees on either side are swaying in the heavy wind. Suddenly the car stops. It moves slowly to the other side. A bolt of lightning almost hits the car and a street light sends out silver flares. All the street lights go out and the car’s headlights also die off.
Bhaskaran: I have to interrupt now. The next morning there is a crowd on the high way around a smashed car and there is a truck lying across the road. Inside the car, we see the young man who died, having lost a lot of blood. See, I only mentioned a crowd and there is a crowd right here. Look, on the next bend, there is a real crowd. I am sure it is an accident. Now the story gets really scary.
(the phone rings)
Sir, you attend the call and stay here. I will take a look and come back. Doctor Amma may be calling you.
Thomas: Hello, Mary, no we are still on the road. Yes, it is a long walk. It is nice here. Only that we are yet to get a coffee or tea. There are no shops here. Yes, we have covered almost four kilometers now. There is another junction two kilometers from here. I think we will have to go all the way down there for a cup of tea now. Have the kids gone to school? Ok, I think we will go all the way down and have our breakfast also before going back up. If Brigit calls, thank her for the house. And tell her it is a haunted house. I couldn’t sleep last night. All kinds of nightmares. Didn’t tell anything to Bhaskaran. He is already scared of being here and wants to go to Shornur where his cousin has a house near the river. OK. There is a crowd near the next curve. Looks like an accident. Bhaskaran has gone there to see what it is. He is coming back. I will call you later.
Bhaskaran: Sir, it is bad news for us. It is that driver. Got killed. His car is still deep down in the valley. They brought up his body and sent it for post-mortem. The inspector is here. And some policemen too. They were asking around who had hired the taxi. I didn’t say anything.
Thomas: So bad. This was what the idiot was rushing out for. Anyway, I will go and meet the inspector. You go back home. I think you are right. Let’s look for another house.
Bhaskaran: His time had come. That was why he had to rush out like that, without even letting us know he was going.
Thomas: That is actually nice of him. We would have felt even worse if he had said a proper good-bye before he left. Still, it happened just like that. His story and his stories have come to an end.
Bhaskaran: I was not shocked by your story. But, I got shocked as soon as it ended. It was too much of a story. You had just told me the story of a car accident and right here there is one.
Thomas: It wasn’t my story exactly. It was based on a story that he had told me. I modified it with a few things from Charlie’s life and death.
Bhaskaran: I also thought so. Doctor Amma had told me something about that accident then. That is why this story sounded so familiar. She had told me that the car was smashed by a lorry. She didn’t tell me there was a woman in the car. Did that lady also die?
Thomas: What lady? There was no lady there. I added that from the story the driver told me. He and his stories! He was trying to scare me with that! He had no idea that I make up stories for a living.
Bhaskaran: Sir, let’s move out of this house today itself.
Thomas: Are you scared? He was your bedmate yesterday. He will come for you tonight. O, he died on a Friday. So, for sure, you are going to be eaten alive tonight.
Bhaskaran: Sir, that won’t work for me. You are the one who writes scandalous stories about dead people. He was telling all those ghost stories to you last night. If you ever write those stories down and make any money out of it, he is surely going to come after you for his share. For the time being, there is the inspector ready for HIS share. It is nice to give him something. Or, he will make you walk up and down this hill for the next one week.
Thomas (as narrator) I went with the inspector on his jeep to the station to give a written statement. Since he himself blurted out that the man had died seven or eight hours ago and that the accident had happened between eleven o’ clock and midnight, I had to hide a few things from him. My statement showed that the driver had dropped us at ten thirty and had gone away soon after. Since Bhaskaran had not come to the station, it made things easy for me. I never had to tell him the truth. I never mentioned it to my wife also. I lied to both of them that the accident happened only in the morning.
We moved out of the house the same day itself. I heard from the inspector later that the post-mortem report also went well with my report and that the file was closed. The new house that Bhaskaran found for me was a good one. I finished a small book on the recent developments in the Middle East. It was titled: Jasmine Smells Better than Blood. Talking of jasmine, that day at the police station the inspector had asked me again and again whether there was a lady with us that night in the car. He said that the people had commented that when they took out the driver’s body from the car, the smell of jasmine was stronger than the smell of coagulated blood.
Bhaskaran went to live with his son who was in Adimally in the High Ranges. I once went to see him to invite him for my eldest daughter’s wedding. It was nice to see him after all those years. He offered me some good home-made liquor. I got a little drunk and told him what had happened that night at Brigit’s house on the hill-top. Not only that he didn’t believe it, he laughed a lot and told me that the home-made liquor could work wonders.