Saturday, 11 February 2017

“That my friends, is magic”

They say magic isn’t real. I know differently. I still remember sitting in awe with my brother watching the famous magician of our town, Chinna mantravati. He was named so because he was short, and well, he was a magician. Every year Appa would take us to his show and make us sit only in the fourth or fifth row. We were too scared to sit in the front as I was somehow sure that he would pick me as the volunteer and make me disappear forever. My brother and I were terrified whenever he said, “Any volunteers?”. We would crouch and lower our heads as much as possible.
Chinna mantravati’s most famous magic trick was him walking on knives. He always saved it for the last. The entire crowd would wait with bated breath for that exact moment. He usually took around two minutes to complete his walk, back and forth. And for that entire time, there was pin drop silence. He would get down from the row of knives and with his bowed head, would finish the show by saying, “That my friends, is magic”.  I remember sitting still with my mouth wide open when he said that at the end of each show.
My brother imitated Chinna mantravati at home and made me believe for a long time that he knew magic as well. He would lock me in the spooky, dark little store room of our house with just candlelight and made things disappear. He took small rubber bands, pens, key chains, spoons, old toys and made them disappear. I never asked him why I had to close my eyes every time he performed the trick, though. I was only six years old.
But, I’m not talking about walking on knives or making spoons disappear. I’m talking about the other kind of magic. The kind of magic that, you don’t get to see, but feel. Like the time in my university hostel, when Jan and I would wake up every day at the exact time screaming at each other – “That’s unbelievable!!” We were researching telepathy and synchronicity then. We were sure we felt something.
It was during my stint with the local NGO, that I experienced one such incident. I was given the task of collecting clothes and distributing it to certain old age homes and orphanages. I always gave them away to the manager of the organisation, and so, I never was in direct contact with those children or elderly. It was the Christmas Eve of 2004 and one of our friends suggested that we buy new clothes for Christmas and give away to the homeless people on the road. We dressed up as Santa and drove around the city in the middle of the night placing new clothes near the homeless people on the roads and platforms. They were mostly asleep except for one little girl who asked us, “Do you have food, as well? Amma slept without eating you know” It hit me then that clothes were fine, only if the stomach was filled. We gave her some money and the next day we distributed as much food packets as we could. It was a beautiful Christmas. One of the best in many years – until the next day.
The day after Christmas, somewhere in an island in Indonesia, originated an earthquake, that brought the worst to the lives of many. Tsunami had struck our city. There was confusion and panic everywhere. Nobody knew what a tsunami was, until then. People were talking about waves going as high as 100ft. It all sounded very terrifying. We gathered at our office and worked out plans to help as many people as we could. The damage was still not very evident but we knew that whatever happened was along the beach and we needed to get there immediately with supplies. I was in charge of collecting and delivering food. I had a hard time arranging transportation and by the time I collected food packets from various centres and managed to reach the beach front, it was almost late afternoon.
The beach front was completely flooded dotted with overturned vehicles and uprooted trees. Bodies were still being washed to the shore by waves. It was a scene we had never imagined we would witness in our lives. Everything was damaged and broken. Things and lives. The atmosphere was filled with an eerie silence. It was as though people had lost the will to talk.
There were make shift rehabilitation spaces, filled with people who had lost everything but their lives. We started distributing food packets to the people ignoring the horror that was in front of us. As I was giving away the food packets, I noticed a little girl sitting alone. I knew her, as she was wearing the dress we had bought for Christmas. She had lost her family to the sea. I went and sat next to her. I was searching for words to tell her but just ended up saying, “Hey”
“So, you brought me food today? I haven’t eaten anything you know”, she said without looking at me. There was blankness in her eyes. She looked so different than she did a day before. I gave her the food and sat next to her quietly until she finished eating. She sat staring blankly again. What could I possibly say to make her feel better? “It’s all right. You’ll be fine” or “Don’t worry, it’s all for the best” or “Be brave, you’ll get through this”?  I couldn’t say any of those, as I knew it wasn’t all right and she wasn’t going to be fine and, she would probably not understand any of this, as she was just a kid.
“Hey look! Do you see these pink and green rubber bands?”, I told her removing the rubber bands that held the food packets intact.  She looked at me for the first time and replied, “Yeah. What about them?”. “Well. I can make them disappear”, I said. “No, you cannot!”, she said with disbelief.  “Oh, I can. Go on. Close your eyes and when you open them, they’ll be gone”, I spoke in that hypnotizing magician tone that my brother used when I was this little girl’s age. I demonstrated that silly trick exactly like my brother. When she opened her eyes, she shrieked with excitement, “It’s gone!”. She looked at me, her eyes glittering with amusement, not blank anymore, and her mouth wide open.
At that moment, I realised something. It was not walking on knives or making spoons disappear. It was those pair of glittering eyes filled with excitement, despite it being one of the most disastrous days in the history of the world. “How did you do it?!”, she squeaked again. I looked at her ecstatic face and smiled, as a little voice inside my head said with pride, “That my friends, is magic!”

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Black Box

The blonde looked pretty good for a dead girl. I stood there in shock staring at the still and lifeless body. This was a familiar route and for the first time I have stopped my car for such a situation. There were no cars around. A million thoughts rushed through my head. Should I call the police? Should I touch her? Should I check her purse? Should I check her car? I should call the police- that is exactly what any good samaritan who stop their car on a crime scene would do, I thought. The bullet mark on her head was very disturbing. I decided to check her car first.

Just as I was about to open the door, I heard a cell phone ring. My heart started racing. How would I inform her death? I have never done that before in my life. Telling their loved one that they have lost someone dear to them – it must be the hardest thing to do in the world. I reached to her purse hurriedly, as I averted my sight from her bloody face. I took the phone hoping it would not display the name “Mom” or “Dad”. To my relief, it was a private number. 

I waited for the person on the other end to speak. “Is it done?”, said a very calm and deep male voice. I waited for a few more seconds. “I said- is it done? Did you give it?”. The voice was still calm but it was getting more aggressive. It sent shivers down my spine and I immediately muttered, “um..there is a problem”. There was a pause and I could hear sudden movements on the other end.

“Who is this? What’s going on?”, he was getting worried. “Uh.. Sir ,look I was just passing by this road and found this female dead on the road. She has been shot.. SHOT! On the .. on the head.. I have stopped my car.. I don’t know what to do? Do you know her? Can you come here right now?”, as I paused to catch my breath, I realised how horrifying the situation was.

There was no reply on the other side for a while. I could heard the caller talking with another man. I couldn’t make out what they were talking exactly, as everything sounded muffled. The tone, however, suggested disbelief and anger. “Can you look if there is a black box inside her car?”, the caller came back on. Something was wrong. He did not ask if I saw her getting shot or if she was really dead or anything concerning her. He did not sound concerned at all. Black box?! Something was very very wrong.

I didn’t want to give him the impression that I was becoming suspicious. I ran towards her car and started looking for the box. There was no sign of any box on the seat, in the trunk or on the dashboard. “Did you find it?”, the caller was getting impatient. “I’m still looking”, I was getting annoyed with his tone now. I gave up searching and in one final attempt, reached under the front seat and my fingers finally met the box. I pulled it out. It was a black box, more like a shoe box and quite heavy. I was hesitant to open the box. “What happened? Did you find it?!”, the caller screamed right into my ears. “No. I looked everywhere. There is no box.” I did not know why I said that.

“What?! Are you sure? Did you look everywhere? What about the trunk?”

“Yes I checked everywhere, there is no box”, I lied as I stood staring at the box in my hand.

“DAMMIT! They took it.. they took the box from her. I told you we should’ve been more careful. You knew how important it was. I should’ve gone with the box myself. Now look.. I..” The call got disconnected as the caller continued shouting at the other man.

I had to think and act fast. I took the box to my car and started driving away from the dead body. I stamped my foot hard on the accelerator and drove as fast as I could. What did I just do? I felt the adrenaline rush within me. Why am I enjoying this? I looked at the rear-view mirror to check if there was anyone following me, and I noticed something weird about my reflection - there was a smile across my face. There is a dead girl who I just abandoned and now I’m almost a criminal running away with a black box, and here I am, smiling! The thought that nobody knows about this and the fact that I managed to cheat the guy on the phone gave me a thrill. I drove for miles outside the city thinking about what could be inside the black box. Drugs? Diamonds? Stacks of cash? Or maybe even highly confidential government or military files. Whatever it was, it was definitely something very important. It was either going to make me rich or powerful or powerful and rich. I chuckled at the thought. I was surprised at my behaviour. Maybe this was going to change my life forever.

After driving for more than three hours, I pulled over my car and checked into a small motel. I had the odd sensation of being followed.  I locked myself in and made sure I secured all the windows. I took a hot shower to soothe my tired body and finally fell on the bed. I stared at the black box on the table. Not yet. Not when I’m this tired and confused. I fought the urge to call the police and don’t remember when I slept.

It was a sunny morning. I got up with excitement and immediately pounced towards the box. I was clearer now and felt like somehow, I earned this. This was it. This was the moment that is going to change my life. My fingers were shaking as I started opening the box. I carefully removed the lid and placed it aside. Inside the box, in a neatly stacked fashion, I found clay bricks.

Miles away in another motel, a woman sank to her couch smoking her final cigarette. She switched on the TV and started packing her bag. She brushed her blonde hair away from her face as she placed the gold biscuits in her bag. She puffed her cigarette as the news reporter on the TV continued: “… And in other local news – the Police are looking for the miscreants responsible for staging a fake murder scene on the highways last night”