Secrets by Bernard Maclaverty

 

dsc_0118 Secrets by Bernard Maclaverty pivots on the theme of the immortality of letters, in both senses of the word. A parallel theme to this is the guilt complex from the formative years.

The story is rather simple and nothing new. A boy looks through some letters which his great aunt, a spinster, keeps as her secret. They are passionate love letters from a soldier who died in action. The boy gets found out and is cursed by the lady. She dies much later of old age and the letters get burned. The boy is remorseful of what he did.

Though the story is told from the third-person point of view, part of it is in an epistolary form which only helps to hide a lot, revealing only what is necessary. For example, though we know who the hapless aunt’s lover was, we actually don’t hear what happened to him. We don’t even get to hear the full content of the letters even though the narrator has read most of them fully. This becomes a metaphor for the mystery we call life.

The boy who represents a younger generation than that of the aunt does not see that he is more privileged when it comes to relationships and intimacy.

“He had just left his girlfriend’s home- they had been studying for ‘A’ levels together”

when he was asked to be present at his great aunt’s death bed. He is not at all happy to be there and tries his best to keep away from the dying person. From his memories of her, we see that she was a simple person outwardly even though from the choice of books he used to read out to him we find that she was a very passionate and strong person since all those stories depict strong women characters. Her most favourite was Pip’s meeting with Miss Havisham in The Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Far from a coincidence, Pip too gets slapped across his cheek by Miss Havisham in that scene.

The boy’s mother tells him after his aunt’s death that she kept to herself. This is absolutely true but intriguing. We are left to imagine whether the man in the photograph was the same man who wrote the letters, or whether both were dead or not. When she goes for a walk, she is very careful about her appearance, a behaviour we are not led to associate with her. All we are told through the letters is that she was passionately in love with a soldier named John. Benignus means an introverted soul, reserved and secretive, who tends to protect himself from a world that can make him feel a little uneasy at times.

Incidentally, the boy’s reading of the last letter is cut short when the lady returns. This might be symbolic of what happened to the man. The boy fails to sort things out just like his aunt who fails to put her own life in order. Her past is all the sweet privacy she has got in life and when boy trespasses into it, she is infuriated as if her only heaven is taken from her. On the other hand, the boy realizes the intensity of his own foul deed and after the aunt’s death cries begging for forgiveness.

The story incites curiosity in the reader too and so we are forced to pardon the boy for his own curiosity. We feel sorry for the lady even though we are not aware of what happened in her life. True to the title, the secretive nature of life is endorsed in this story.

The Stoat by John MacGahern

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Autobiographical to a large extent, The Stoat by John MacGahern, an Irish writer, is also a study of impulses and instincts. The story is bracketed off literarally by a display of animal insticts and aggression. This story was rewritten several times and revised more than once.

The story pivots on different themes. Apart from human relationships and the animal insticts in all living beings, the story is also about values, persoal refinement and opportunism. The first paragraph and the last paragraph are mostly about how, a rabbit is killed but not eaten by a stoat. The reference to a stoat appears three more times in the story. Thus inhuman aggression can be considered the main theme of the story.

All night the rabbit must have raced from warren to warren, he thought, the stoat on his trail. Plumper rabbits had crossed the stoat’s path but it would not be deflected ; it had marked down this one rabbit to kill”

This sentence in the second paragraph of the story repeated at the end of the story raises the story from the level of mundane allegory to that of subtle parallelism. However, there is no sin of generalisation here as there are different kinds of characters in the story. Contraty to this parallelism, it is a dying lady who stalks a robust widower.

Miss Mcabe was the real name of a lady with whom the authors father was in love. So, the author himself can be considered as the narrator of the story. The story which has been a puzzle for several critics, is different from its true life version only in its details. It being not so different from real life is one reason why the author gave up working on it any further and avoided it from his major collections.

The story has a very simple plot. A father rents a cottage where he spends a month every August. He, a widower, plans to remarry and puts up an advertisement. After testing and trying about a fifty responses, he settles for Miss McCabe, a school teacher. One day, the son brings home a rabbit which a stoat attacked and left half dead. The son had ended its life. The son cooks it and enjoys it with his father and Miss McCabe who was staying at a hotel near the beach close to them. That night, back in the hotel, the lady shows signs of heart failure. On hearing this the father decides to leave her. In the end, the boy feels more than a little irritated about the father’s ways. In between we hear also about the boy’s uncle with whom the boy is in very good terms.

The key point appears right in the middle of the storry. The uncle and the boy are in a bar where he tells the boy that he likes his company and hopes to see more of him if his father remarries.

He’d like that too. With his uncle everything seemed open: ‘Life seems to have no purpose other than to reproduce itself. Life comes of matter and goes back into matter. We inherit it and pass it on. We might as well take as decent a care of it as we can. You can’t go against love and not be in error.’ Nothing was closed. This freedom was gaiety, even though it seemed that it caused him to seem most lonely.

Eventually, we see how much the son is influenced by his uncle and how much he resents his father’s behaviour and how he chooses to stand alone and be strong. For his uncle, nothing was closed. For the father, nothing was open and he could not even reveal to his girlfriend how his son came by a rabbit he cooked for her.

The interactions between the boy and the uncle on one end, between the rabbit and the stoat on the other end and between the father and his girls somewhere in the middle, this story gives a spectrum of relationships, from co-existence to parasitism to agression and dominance.

When the boy brings the dead rabbit, the father teases the boy’s and his uncle’s humane side,

“No doubt, it can be another specimen for youself and your uncle to mull over”
To this the boy has a proper reply hinting at the father’s narrowminded politics,

“Well, it is as good as what you find in The Independent

This defines the difference between the uncle and the father since the political magazines generally care only about the lives of humans and this is only a natural outcome of the misled quest for survival. The uncle and the son have soared over what is natural and refined themselves to have better values and principles in life. When he comes to know the father’s joke about getting grant to improve the look of women who responded to the ad, the uncle coments that,

“…the man must finally have gone off his rocker.”

and says to the son that,

“At least, if he does get married, it’ll get him off your back.”

Finally it is the son who tries to make the father see that he is being too selfish. But the father fails to see the point. The insight and objectivity help the son see deep into situations and people. He sees ‘with terrifying clarity that it was the stoat the father had glimpsed in Miss. McCabe’s hotel toom’ where she was recuperating after a heart attack.

Even though the story is ridden with details, everything is carefully chosen to make meaning. Miss McCabe and the father revels in the dinner and looks forward to more while the son feels bad about having been part of what he sees as buffoonery. The uncle later contrasts a driving licence with a marriage licence. Another example is the opportunism shown by the people at he post office when they see so many responses to the marriage ad. All this obviously support the theme.

The Fall of the House of Usher

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A good work of art will go on intriguing us and will grow as we grow. In fact, a final decyphering of a work of art is impossible both individually and generally. If a work of art is understood forever, then it does not exist as a work of art any more for a particular person or for the world. Even the artist abandons his work unfinished, says De Vinci.
It is in this spirit that we have to approach the novelette The Fall of the House of Usher. The Fall of the House of Usher possesses the quintessential -features of the Gothic tale: a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious sickness, and doubled personality. For all its easily identifiable Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of this story is its vagueness. The title itself is intrigung with its double meaning of the word “House” since it can mean a building or a family. Since both the family and the house falls into ruins at the end of the story, both meaning are appropriate.
The possibility of varied reading of the story facilitates the presence of a variety of themes. From a doppleganger effect to incest to twin souls, the story pivots on several themes. The story is about a dilapidated house with fissures and houses usually symbolize the human mind. Madeline and Roderick will die only together in the story suggesting that they have a single soul between them. The building too seems to be a living entity as it too dies with them. The effect of the environment on human mind can also be a theme of the story. The myriads ways in which minds can be twisted is another interesting theme that the story explores.
Very little dialogue is heard in this story and what is heard is more an expression of thoughts that a commentary on actions. To compensate for this absence of voice, a fairly long poem is included and a story is told. The narrator shares all his thoughts with the reader. One of the main characters Madeline does not utter anything at all.
Characterisation is a remarkable aspect of the story. The story is told from the third person point of view and the speaker or the narrator has no access to the thoughts of the two other characters at all and this is highly logical. He can only report what he sees and what he hears. This limited vision of the story proper intensifies the tension and suspense in the story since the reader too is left in the dark as the narrator. The language used by the narrator says a lot about him, his anxieties, fears, apprehensions and nervousness. Everything he witnesses is also looked deep into and analyzed which shows the level of fear he has. His fearful mind reflects on the house and its premises. We have only his word about the state of affairs there. Roderick is depicted as a mental wreck. The narrator suspects substance abuse and sexual abuse when he sees the behaviour of his friend. If Roderick’s relation with his sister has to be put under the scanner, we have more than ample reason to suspect the relationship he has with the narrator. Roderick could be sick, highly tense about the impeding death of his sister, influenced by the gloomy nature of the house he lives in or may be taking some drug which was not uncommon those days. Madeline is more dead than alive all through the story though she is dynamic nonetheless. She passes by the narrator as if he does not exist and then lends herself to be buried alive. She comes back to life after a week to scare the living daylights out of her brother. Around her too there are a lot of clues that pulls the reader to understand her in a good number of ways. She is the perfect symbol of the story itself just as Roderick represents the house and the narrator represents the writer. Roderick and Madeline Usher are the last of their distinguished line. They are, therefore, the “House of Usher,” as is the strange, dark mansion in which they live. The narrator of Poe’s tale is a childhood friend of Roderick’s, summoned to the decaying country pile by a letter pleading for his help. He arrives to find his friend gravely altered, and through his eyes, we see strange and terrible events unfold. The reader is placed in the position of the narrator, and as such we identify strongly throughout with the “madman” watching incredulous as around him reality and fantasy merge to become indistinguishable. The unity of tone and the effortlessly engaging prose are mesmerizing, enveloping both subject matter and reader.
The setting is the most important aspect of the story as it takes the maximum text-space of the story. Instead of standard narrative markers of place and time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather and a barren landscape. We are alone with the narrator in this haunted space, and neither we nor the -narrator know why. Although he is Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre tenacity of narrator’s response. While Poe provides the recognizable building blocks of the Gothic tale, he contrasts this standard form with a plot that is inexplicable, sudden, and full of unexpected disruptions. The story begins without complete explanation of the narrator’s motives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real and the fantastic.
Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. Characters cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a monstrous character of its own—the Gothic mastermind that controls the fate of its inhabitants. From beginning to end we hear a lot about its nooks and corners. It is described more vividly than any of the characters and thus can even be called the protagonist of the story if we consider its immense influence on the characters and their actions. The unnatural interactions between the brother and the sister, the different sickness each of them have and the possibility of something supernatural can be considered as the problem or conflict in the story. In that case, it is the house that eggs them on and finall collapses on them to effect the climax, though a tragic one.
In short, the story is a mirror that reflects the inner life of the reader and gives him exotic experiences which he will never have otherwise. It is a futile task to work towards a conclusive meaning of the story. It is a story to be read repeatedly and slowly, like an imagist poem. This is all the more evident when we compare the language Poe uses here and elsewhere. The sentences are long and goes around in circles giving us more and more abstract as well as concrete images. The narrator gives a running commentary of the action, thereby making us see what we would have missed had we been right there in the scene of action.

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The Plot
An unnamed narrator arrives at the House of Usher, a very creepy mansion owned by his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Roderick has been sick lately, afflicted by a disease of the mind, and wrote to his friend, our narrator, asking for help. The narrator spends some time admiring the awesomely spooky Usher edifice. While doing so, he explains that Roderick and his sister are the last of the Usher bloodline, and that the family is famous for its dedication to the arts (music, painting, literature, etc.). Eventually, the narrator heads inside to see his friend.

Roderick indeed appears to be a sick man. He suffers from an “acuteness of the senses,” or hyper-sensitivity to light, sound, taste, and tactile sensations; he feels that he will die of the fear he feels. He attributes part of his illness to the fact that his sister, Madeline, suffers from catalepsy (a sickness involving seizures) and will soon die, and part of it to the belief that his creepy house is sentient (able to perceive things) and has a great power over him. He hasn’t left the mansion in years. The narrator tries to help him get his mind off all this death and gloom by using the literature, music, and art that Roderick so loves. It doesn’t seem to help.

As Roderick predicted, Madeline soon dies. At least we think so. All we know is that Roderick tells the narrator she’s dead, and that she appears to be dead when he looks at her. Of course, because of her catalepsy, she might just look like she’s dead, post-seizure. At Roderick’s request, the narrator helps him to entomb her body in one of the vaults underneath the mansion. While they do so, the narrator discovers that the two of them were twins and that they shared some sort of supernatural, probably extrasensory, bond.

About a week later, on a dark and stormy night, the narrator and Usher find themselves unable to sleep. They decide to pass away the scary night by reading a book. As the narrator reads the text aloud, all the sounds from the fictional story can be heard resounding from below the mansion. It doesn’t take long for Usher to freak out; he jumps up and declares that they buried Madeline alive and that now she is coming back. Sure enough, the doors blow open and there stands a trembling, Madeline. She throws herself at Usher, who falls to the floor and, after “violent” agony, dies along with his sister. The narrator flees; outside he watches the House of Usher crack in two and sink into the dark, dank pool that lies before it.

To Build a Fire (1908 version) by Jack London

Written at a time when modernism was in its cradle, To Build a Fire by Jack London was a forerunner of modern fiction. Modern Literature does not treat a work as a finished product. It is only a conduit through which the reader and the writer interact to create art as a befitting product of the imagination of both of them. In other words, modern literature is written in such a way that each writer will be able to read it in his own way. Multiple layers of meaning will be packed into the work so that multiple reading is facilitated.

Title and Theme

Fire is a symbol of several sundry things, on of them being life. The question ‘why was the lamp lit if it had to be put out like this and so soon?’ looms large in the story, since the man dies and untimely death. The man’s struggle to build a fire and his inability to do so entails the tragedy. In both ways, the title is highly appropriate. One of the ways in which this story can be read is as an allegory. An allegory means, the work has almost one to one correspondence with another aspect which is not literally stated in the work. Geroge Orwell’s Animal Farm is a perfect example. Unfortunately, allegory is considered one of the lowest kind of writing because of its usual simplicity, even though it is possible to write a very complex allegory and win accolades. Here the path the man takes symbolizes life and he could be any human being pursuing it with high hopes. Thus life and its uncertainties can be considered as the theme of this story.

Style

Loneliness comes in two types, the depressed aloofness, and the joyful solitude. The man in the story experiences both. A writer usually takes some characters and puts them in a smaller world and talks about them to make people understand more about life. Tempest is an obvious example. Jack London makes it more intense by putting a single character in a totally deserted locale. The style chosen makes no bones about the story being an allegory. Here is an analysis:

Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the

main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led

eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the

top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun

nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed

an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was

due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It

had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

That man is lonely and unsupported by anything divine is a basic tenet of existentialism which is the main feature of twentieth-century literature. This is stated in the very first phrase, the day the man choose to travel was not just cold and grey like it could cold and grey in real life, but EXCEEDINGLY cold and grey. This word ‘exceedingly’ warns the reader that it is not about an ordinary circumstance. The ‘dim and little-travelled trail’ makes the journey even more exceedingly extra-ordinary. The phrase ‘excusing the act to himself’ heightens his loneliness even further as though he feels his loneliness, still manages to give company to himself. The sky is bright though the sun is absent (hopelessness) and the absence of a guiding light, a guarding star makes the day look gloomy to the author though not to the character. “He was used to the lack of sun’ shows us that he has come to terms with the idea that there are neither answers nor any hope to be found in this world. Like a typical character in existential literature, he waits, he waits like Godot.

Setting

Thus is the stage set for the tale to unfold. The second paragraph of the story gives us more details of the setting. It is deliberately written without using objective descriptions of colour, length, distance, and shape. This objective way of description looks unimaginative and it engenders in the reader the same boredom felt by the traveller down his uninteresting trail. All the four basic elements, earth, water (ice), fire and wind, plot against this unfortunate traveller. While thick frozen ice is one kind of danger, the thinly frozen ice on pools of water is another kind. With the challenges it offers, the dangers it hides, the destinations it promises, the uncertainty it holds, the regrets its hoards, the selfishness it enforces, the apathy it preserves, the trail is a perfect allegorical symbol of life. In each and every sentence describing the trail, as listed above, we see one or another aspect of life itself.

The man keeps thinking about the different parts of his body. As they too have started rebelling against him, he feels alienated from them and considers them as what ‘he’ possesses. For him, his hand and the mitten that it covers are of the same category. He sees a closer friend in his mitten which dries when he puts them near a fire than his own hand which fails him at a crucial point of time. In existentialism, a person’s inner life is called his essence, almost the same way in religions it is called his soul or atma. The essence is acquired after a man is born or has an existence. Thus in existentialism, existence comes first, not the essence. The soul (the essence) as talked about in religions, comes in to being first and then acquires its existence or body later. Here, the man, by alienating himself from his body, thinks more of his essence. For him, his life is his essence. His body is only a belonging.

It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were.

This is not in the spirit of existentialism. This is furthered when he decides to face ‘his death with dignity’. Thus he identifies with something beyond his body. This too is not in the same spirit as existentialism which says that life is much more important than anything else. This is seen more in the animal which minds its own life and stays with the traveller only till that time when he can support its life. When he fails to support himself, it runs away looking for its next supporter. For its, life, more than dignity, is everything. However, the man’s body too incidentally colludes with the environment.

Characters

The story is the slow death of a man who has dreams, plans and schemes, and the survival of an animal who has none of these.

Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.’

The dog knows from his experience what to do and does not trust even its own master let alone a God it never saw. The man, even when he is told by a wiser person not to venture out at that time of the year, ignores all warning and hitches his life to hope and finds that life is all too uncertain for any hope to have an iota of substance. Unlike the dog, the man has memories, regrets, guilt, tomorrows and schemes. He saves the best for another occasion since he is sure there is another occasion. He could have eaten the food. He could have waited for another day. But he makes the wrong choice in each case. He does not wait for another day to travel as has been advised and saves the food for another time and dies without tasting it. He is willing to kill his companion for his own safety. In everything he does, he is the opposite of the dog. The dog, with all its animal instincts, does not, like its brother wolf, kills the man for food. It does not pursue the smell of food inside the dead man’s clothes. Every moment the man does something or the other which corresponds to what a man does anywhere at any point of time in his life, whether he is deserted or accompanied. The man’s name not given also makes the reader read this story as an allegory.

Point of View, Tone and Mood

The story is told from the omniscient point of view (God’s Point of View). This gives the reader good access to the thoughts, words and deeds of both the man and the dog. The story is written dispassionately and disinterestedly with not much sympathy shown to the characters from the part of the author. This calls for more sympathy from the reader as he thinks the writer is being unjustifiably insensitive. However, this only enhances character identification and it makes the reader feel the pain of the character more. The general mood fo the story too from the very first is that of a very depressing one and purposely the story takes a very slow pace, just like life.

The Rattrap

The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish Nobel laureate, reads like a folk tale but holds a very meaningful message for us. In the context of a man’s experience around Christmas time, the story explores the edge experience has over intelligence, knowledge and wisdom. It also highlights the importance compassion has in transforming a person.

The story features a vagabond who earned his living selling rattraps. He made rattraps using the scrap metal he found. When he couldn’t find the raw material, he begged or stole them. He always looked hungry and led a life of monotony and boredom.
Then, one day, a thought struck him. He found that the world was very much like a rattrap. The world offers wealth and other pleasures just the way a rattrap offers cheese and meat. Once we go in for them, we are imprisoned in it forever and it entails nothing but eternal misery. He went around telling this idea to everyone he met.
Though he tried to spread this great philosophy of life, a truth which is expounded by all religions, it only remained in his brain as a piece of information. He was intelligent enough to figure it out and talk about it. He was wise enough to understand its significance. But when it came to practising it, he failed miserably. He realized this only when it was spelled out to him by an incident.
One dark evening he was walking along the road and knocked at the door of a poor old man’s cottage. The old man let him in, served him food and gave him shelter for the night. They played cards and the old man told him his story. He used to work in Ramsjo Ironworks but now he was a small time crofter who had just one cow. He said that was good enough for him since it had even given him thirty kroners in a month. Like the Bishop did to Jean Val Jean, he even showed the vagabond the money kept in a cloth bag hung on the wall.
The next day both men left the hut at the same time but the peddler came back and stole the thirty kronor from the old man. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment he got hunted by his own conscience and he thought he was being followed. He left the highways and entered a forest, but as much as he walked, he was not able to come out of it. He realized that his own medicine had not worked for him and that he had been trapped by money and that the forest was his prison.
At some point later in the same night he heard sounds from the Ramsjo Ironworks and moved in that direction. He reached the factory and went in. Nobody asked any questions since it was normal for vagabonds like him to walk in and enjoy the warmth of the furnace in a chilly night like this.
Just then the owner of the mill walked in. He addressed the peddler as Captain Nils Olof mistaking him for an old friend. The peddler didn’t contradict him. The miller invited him home and this the peddler refused since he feared getting himself exposed in better lighting. Later the owner’s daughter Elda came to get him and forced him to go with her. She had even brought a wrap for him since it was too chilly outside. The peddler went with her. That night both the father and the daughter were so nice to him and made him wear good clothes. But seeing him in those clothes they found they had made a mistake and he too confessed that he was only a peddler. The father thought of calling the sheriff to arrest him. The vagabond told him that he was innocent and if he was dragged into trouble that would entail another cycle of misery through which the miller would also get caught in the trap. His words made the owner change his mind but he asked the peddler to leave. Now the daughter intervened saying that they couldn’t ask him to leave since they had invited him. Moreover, it is Christmas Eve and the man deserved a peaceful life at least once in a year. She served him a good supper. The next morning he slept on and was woken up only for lunch and dinner. He was even invited for the next Christmas.
That night at church, Elda heard that one of the old crofters of the ironworks had been robbed by a man who went around selling rattraps. The iron master now feared that the man might have stolen all their silver spoons. When they returned home the peddler had already left. He had left a tiny rattrap for Elda. There was a note attached to it. It was his confession. There were thirty kronor in the rattrap and he asked Elda to have the privilege of returning it to the old man. He thanked her and her father for the being compassionate to him and thereby transforming him. His intelligence, knowledge and wisdom only took him close to hell (symbolized by the hot burning furnace and the thirty kronor hinting at Judas’s reward for betraying Christ). His transformation came from his real life experience when he was shown compassion by two strangers even when they found him a sinner.

At Hiruharama (analysis)

At Hiruharama

by Penelope Fitzgerald

At Hiruharama is a well crafted story which sustains the reader’s attention through its sympathetic treatment of life. Though there is no winding plot, the story catches our attention and maintains tension and suspense because of the realistic portrayal of adorable characters.

The story is about Mr. Tanner and his wife Kitty who end up in New Zealand and make the best out of the worst. Through farming, they manage to live in an almost barren land with not many neighbours. They live away from the city and so when Kitty gets pregnant, her husband is very worried about the medical help that she may need. He visits a doctor in the city and buys two pigeons which he hopes to use to communicate with the doctor through the man who sells them. He sees to it that nothing is overlooked. But he makes the worst foolishness when he mistakes one of the babies for the afterbirth and dumps it in the dustbin. It is this girl who becomes a lawyer and raises the family’s hopes for a better living.

The story seems to be part of a longer novel because of its abrupt opening. This is very effective since it sounds like the writer is taking the reader into his confidence with such ease and frankness.  The writer amazes us with his story telling techniques and informal style.

The land Mr. Tanner and Kitty selected to settle down in had only one good thing about it. There was a standpipe and constant clear water from an underground well. This source of water later turns out to be the symbol of the limitless love and affection Mr. Tanner possesses. Human relationships and the need to love and be loved loom large in the story.

Though the story is written like a chronicle, the writer is able to provide it with interesting moods and subtle tones. Along with the barrenness of the land we are also told about an insensitive neighbor who comes to dine with the couple twice a year. His name is Brinkman. He doesn’t have much to do with the plot of the story but he serves an important purpose. We find that there is a kind of softness deep in him too. He has no family since he couldn’t persuade a woman to live with him in that godforsaken land.

He arrives for his half-yearly dinner when Kitty is about to have labour pains. This disappoints him and he talks endlessly about his last dinner with them. He is not bothered about the trouble the family is going through. Still, it touches us deeply when he says why he comes to visit the Tanners. He insists he doesn’t come for dinner or to enjoy the scenic beauty. He says,

“No, I’ve come today, as I came formerly, for the sake of hearing a woman’s voice.”

This touch is important for the story since the story is feminist in its content and treatment. It is a celebration of femininity. This is brought forth through the character of Kitty and how the other treat Kitty. It is Kitty who inspires Mr. Tanner to learn to read and write and he manages to accomplish it before he marries her. Her mildest suggestion to him that he should write to his sister “how it is between us” inspires him to live up to her expectations. Since she asks him to ‘write’ to his sister, Tanner knew she expected him to be literate.

Unlike Mr. Tanner, Kitty was educated even before she came to New Zealand. She came as a governess                                                                                                                                  and ended up as a servant. It is with her help that Mr. Tanner is able to run a farm.

Tanner might be finding Kitty so committed since she has chosen to live with him and share his hardships. He tells the doctor the reason why his neighbor is not married.

“You couldn’t ask a woman to live out there.”

To this the doctor says,

“You can ask a woman to live anywhere.”

Against the doctor’s and Brinkman’s apparent insensitivity, Mr. Tanner comes out as man with such a good heart.

When Mr. Tanner visits the doctor, we see him very anxious about his wife’s condition. He wants to know how many women die in childbirth. He has no questions about the baby, even though the doctor  makes a prophetic statement,

“Well don’t ask me if it’s going to be twins. Nature didn’t intend us to know that.”

Mr. Tanner is very resourceful and is very proactive. He tells the doctor, “I can do anything about the house.” We find this to be true.

‘He told the doctor he’d managed to deliver the child, a girl, in fact he’s wrapped it up in a towel and tucked it up in the washbasket.’

Even on the day of his wife’s delivery, in the midst of all the problems and in spite of his anxiety and desperation,  Tanner is a good host to Brinkman, his neighbor whom he hasn’t seen for the last six months. His good nature goes unnoticed by his neighbour, but that doesn’t deter him from serving his guest. He wins the love of all the people he meets including the doctor and the Maori boy who sells pigeons.  When the doctor says the Brinkman is a crank, Tanner objects and says that he should be called a dreamer at the worst.

Tanner is not only endowed with a good heart, he also has a smart brain. He is resourceful and plans things in advance.

“Tanner turned over in his mind what he’s say to his wife when she told him she was going to have a child.” But when he finally tells him, he doesn’t say anything but straightaway goes to the town to consult a doctor.

The language of the story is informal to a great extent though there are two instances of the writer’s skill to write in different styles. When Tanner writes to his sister his style resembles the Bible since it is probably the only book he is able to read after he became literate. Another change in style in when Brinkman talks. His English is fairly elegant. All the other characters speak in dialects.

The story ends with Brinkman’s  thoughts. His words tell us how simple are the characters that we come across in this story. In fact, these words throw much light on the theme of the story. In spite of deserts and barren lands, the earth is still beautiful. Likewise, in spite of hardships and accidents, life is still beautiful in its own terms.

“All the time Brinkman continued to sit there by the table and smoke his pipe. Two more women born into the world! It must have seemed to him that if this sort of thing went on, there should be a good chance, in the end, for him to acquire one for himself. Meanwhile, they would have to serve dinner sometime.”

Around a Bend

Around the Bend

path on the mountain top at night

( 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.

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