New Lamps for Old
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Carol Mayweather cursed herself for not taking the flight. ‘Try the train’ she had thought, ‘authentic Indian experience’. At 11:57 when she finally got to board her much delayed train she did not have much regard for ‘authentic Indian experience’.
She waded through the dark sleeping compartment searching for her seat. When she found it, it was still kept unfolded, a lean young man sat across it. The light from the station poured in through the window illuminating his face. He wore shades on a gaunt face deeply lined with scars. The man noticed her struggling with her luggage and offered a hand.
“Hi, I am Carol”, she said finally settling into her seat after muttering a word or two of thanks. The man did not offer to fold the seats instead he coolly sank back in his seat.
“I am Rahim.”, he replied.
Carol wondered if there was a story behind those shades and scars. Would it be impolite to ask?
- So headed to Delhi?
- Yes, Delhi I am afraid…
- What brings you to this land then?
- Oh..I am writing a book you see..
“Interesting”, commented Rahim, his face curious in the fading light of the station.
The train had started gathering pace. A few loud voices and whistles rang in the background.
“So what’s the book about?”
“It's a book on the myths and legends of the Indian subcontinent.” Carol finished in one breath.
If he knew what it meant he would cease to take her seriously, if he didn’t he would just nod and move on. To her surprise Rahim did neither. He showed interest and perhaps even smiled a bit.
“So you have been hunting for uncanny stories and folktales?”, he asked.
Another surprise, this has been her sole job for the past three months now. She had been hunting for stories and tales to put it blindly. Stories that added a little more chill to a cold December night.
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.” she answered.
“You know, I have a story…” Rahim started. Carol could no longer tell if he was smiling. He sat comfortably in his seat looking out of the window into the speeding terrain. It was cold and the wind was sharp and unforgiving, but Rahim wore a simple chequered shirt and jeans. The warm lights of the station and the towns were long gone. He had sunk back into the darkness and an occasional lamppost flashed its fleeting light on his face.
“ It all started last year when my father died. He was a simple clerk at the Calcutta Tea Corporation and whatever little he earned was enough for the three of us. Mother's illness aggravated by the day after his death. The tuitions I offered barely covered my own expenses. So I had to start looking for a job. It was a tough couple of months. I tried freelancing, and people and places that only paid half the time. Finally I came across an internship posted on the internet.
It said I had to conduct an interview, the work hours were four in the evening to six, and for six days a week. But the pay was really good. It didn’t say for how long but I calculated that a couple of weeks would give me sufficient money to finish college and nurse my passion for music. Easy money, I decided.
I applied and waited and within a day or two I was called to the office. Except when I went to the address it wasn’t an office, it wasn’t even an apartment. It was a rather old and fragile house snugly hidden in the northern lanes of the city. The proximity to the river had dampened the walls which now revealed its bricks like an old hound baring its fangs. It was a house that reeked of solitude. I had a half a mind to turn away and leave but I reminded myself of the pay. Easy money, I thought.
I rang the bell not once but twice before it was opened by a graying hunched man whom I assumed to be the servant.I was taken upstairs to a rather dark and primitive drawing room. It was different from how old houses are shown in movies. There were less pictures on the wall and the windows were more opaque with dust and age than brightly colored. A great mahogany desk sat in the middle of the room with a number of books, scrolls and letters piled on top of it.
I sat myself at an archaic leather sofa paired with two armchairs and a coffee table. I sat and waited in the dimly lit room for what seemed like an eternity before my employer came in. In appearance my host resembled every bit of his house. His eyes peeked like embers from deep within his sockets. His skin was a pale white, the colour of bones and a thin pair of glasses rested on his sharp nose. He wore an expression of deep disgust and a moth-eaten maroon gown.
He was a Professor or so he told me, now retired obviously. I was to address him as Professor or Sir, never by his first name or as mister. He scanned me for a good minute before speaking again.
“ What you are about to do is both extremely dangerous and a little gray as far as the law is concerned. Now if that’s a problem for you, you can get going right now.”
I neither spoke nor moved a muscle. The Professor leaned on his cane regarding me with the same look of disgust and mockery and perhaps a tinch of curiosity.
“Well I suppose it doesn’t matter to you that much. You are to conduct an interview, the questions would be provided by me, and there are a lot of questions a thousand to be precise.Each day when the interview is done we come down here to my study and you type the answers for me. You take your pay at the end of each day. Is that understood?”
I nodded in compliance. He will be paying me each day, nothing else mattered. Easy money, I thought.
“Alright then, you start tomorrow. Oh and you’ll have to sign a contract. Four p.m sharp tomorrow, a minute late and you lose the job.”
The next day I reached five minutes early and sat waiting for the Professor in his study. He came in at sharp four. You’re early”, he commented.
- I am sorry, I thought…
- I did not ask you to be early either.
- I am sorry, sir I mean Professor..
He handed me a ream of tattered old parchments sewn together like ancient deeds. “It's your contract, read it and when you are done sign it with your right thumb.” he said without turning to me.
I checked the parchments. It was indeed a contract of sorts. The conditions and clauses were handwritten and there was even a worn out seal on the first page. The conditions themselves did not make much sense either-
‘I could not speak of my work or the nature of it to anyone else.’
‘Any undesirable outcome of the job is solely my own responsibility and not that of my employer.’
And on it went for five more pages. I did not pay much heed to it then, besides there were far too many conditions to read and realize before signing.
When the paperwork was done he handed me a manuscript and led me out of the room onto a flight of haggard stairs. He carried an old lantern the kind you only see in antique shops now. When we had climbed about halfway he turned and said
“Remember the seventh clause” and as if already having known that I had skipped reading it, he added “ The creature you shall be talking to is a cunning one and he will try to trick you. Do not under any circumstances answer any of its questions. It gives him power over you.”
I do not remember what I thought of the advice then. Most likely I reminded myself of the pay. Easy money.
The creature it turned out was held captive in a room on the rooftop. I was to conduct the interview from outside the room seated beneath the open sky. The room was an isolated one, its walls well worn by the storms of the past. The wooden door looked as if a strong wind could knock it over. And yet it was held shut by a rusty old lock. There were no windows, no orifice, that granted me access to vision save for a split on the wooden door.
Two chairs were provided for us on the rooftop. I seated myself in the one nearer to the room and took out the manuscript.
“What is your name?” Only silence followed. I felt very silly then, talking to a room. I turned to look at the Professor who was waiting eagerly for something to happen. I cleared my throat and asked again, “What is your name?”
This time there was a low growl. It made my flesh creep that sound did. Whatever the creature was, it was definitely big, barely fitting inside the room. I repeated the question a little loudly this time. “What is your name?”
The growl echoed giving way to a soft more gentle hiss. “Our names were taken from uss like our will, and our dreamss, and our clothess.” The creature spoke with rage and contempt in its voice, and I was suddenly thankful of the delicate wooden door that separated us.
I took out my notebook and wrote down his answer word by word before moving on to the next question. The interview ended for the day at exactly six. I could only get ten questions and after I had typed them up with the very vague and mysterious answers, I was paid. Easy money, I told myself.
The next week continued in the same way. Some days I got a few more questions and some days the answers were longer. But I got paid in full every evening. In the nights sitting by the window at my shambly home, I sang to myself. I imagined the bright bokeh lights of the city dancing to my music. And sometimes in my dreams my mind wandered to the fragile house, and the solitary rooftop room and the creature held inside. Who was it? Was it a mad man? Was the Professor playing a prank on me?
Whatever it was, was none of my business I decided. Yet I could not stop thinking of it., It could not answer where it came from and when asked where or when it was born it had simply answered, “East.”
The trouble started as it always does after a few days. I could not get the voice of the creature out of my head. The soft hiss and the low growl followed me like a persistent predator. It waited in the nooks and corners of my mind. A silent walk or a solitary moment and it pounced into fresh set of whispers.
“ We sleep and eat and make love the same as you humanss. We walk your earth and the many earths in between. We are both of thiss world and not of it.”
“Tell me your dreamss and I shall make them my own. Tell me your deepesst, darkest, desire and I shall move the heavenss to bring them to your feet.”
“To hold us captive iss not wise. We are the harbringers of storms and windss of passion. Free me and I shall show you wonderss.”
The weeks turned into months and the voice in my head grew stronger and stronger. It did not wait for gaps or silent trenches anymore. It spoke in my sleep and in my most private moments. It spoke when I crossed roads. It spoke when I paid my bills. It spoke when I did my chores. It spoke -
“Free me and I shall show you wonderss.”
Easy money, I reminded myself.
In the coming days I asked the questions perfunctorily, trying to rush through the interview. The creature had sensed this. It no longer answered like it did before, instead it danced around the question, taking longer and longer to answer. The months became excruciatingly agonizing. I could no longer sleep without pills. The money was good and soon we moved to a better, spacious apartment. Mother started healing again. But my life was no longer my own. I could no longer sing to myself in the night. The joy and promise that gave me strength to brace the sharp winds of poverty had vanished. My life was no longer my own. Easy money, I asked myself.
Everyday I would wake and vow of never going back to the fragile old house and the solitary rooftop room. And yet everyday at dusk I would break my vow. Finally when there were only a hundred questions left I asked the Professor,
“Why don't you let it free? You have enough answers, just set it free.”
I had never seen him lose his temper like that before. The embers of his eyes flashed as he roared at me.
“He is mine, boy. Understand? Mine and mine alone! I paid for him and dearly. I do not pay you for your moral sermons boy..”
I do not remember much of what else he said but I realized this- Whatever sinister plot I had fallen into would be the end of my life. I had to get out. I had to finish the job. So when the last week came I put whatever little was left of my heart and soul into the job.
The creature had grown restless. It no longer gave a straight answer and played games and tricks and often answered in fragments and riddles. At long last, the day came when there were just three questions left.
It was not simple. The Professor sat behind me as usual, rechecking the typewritten answers over and over again. The creature kept silent for great stretches before answering in fragments. As I scribbled down the last of his answers a strange thought entered my mind.
The thousand questions were done, but there was one more. One more that was my own. A question that had lingered unsaid in the air since the first day,
“What do you wish for?”, I asked.
The low growl filled the air once again. But it was different this time, it sounded like a laugh, and perhaps even a tinge triumphant. The voice in my head hissed.
“Come closer and I’ll tell you. Come closser”
I glanced at the Professor who was still checking the notes in the dimming dusk light. I treaded furtively towards the room. I tried peeking through the split in the door. There was nothing to be seen but shadows on the wall, shapeless and fleeting. I leaned closer to get a better look. My hands rubbed on the rusty cold lock.
Only I never got a better view. Something pulled me back in a jerk. I later realized it was the cane of my employer. I remember his fury. Flashes of it. There was a lot of shouting and a blaze of confusion. Before I could make sense of my surroundings I found myself being thrown out of the house.
Over the next few months my life returned to me. I could sing again, and even got an album released which made decent money. Work came along at a steady pace and soon enough the events of the past months turned into shards of a forgotten nightmare. And the voice? The low growl and the soft hiss that could make your flesh creep and your bones chill. I never heard that voice again “
Carol Mayweather had lost track of time. Rahim had been talking for quite some time. It was an impressive story, she thought, but a story nonetheless. Different from the folktales and myths she had gotten used to curating.
“That’s umm...quite something”, she finally managed. Rahim simply shrugged . The train had stopped at another station, but his face was still masked in the shadows. She looked out and spotted a tea vendor. She could do with a cup of chai right now.
As she beckoned the vendor to her Rahim shifted in his seat having spotted the gesture.
“Wait let me get that for you.” and then his voice changing to a soft gentle hiss, echoing through a low growl he whispered,
“What do you wissh to have?”