Monday, May 26, 2008

A Hundred Miles To Havana

Note: This is a re-write of a story I had written years ago in college. I've tried to breathe fresh life into the text; I hope and trust you'll enjoy it.

There is fear in us, dark and velvet, enveloping our hearts and minds, whispering insanely in our dreams. Throwing us into the abyss, roaring with laughter as we slip away like tin soldiers from the hands of a dying god.
There is hate in us too, a brooding evil, animating our hands, tapping out the drumbeats to our deepest desires.
And there is love as well, oh yes, a blazing ray of light that sets fire to our souls. Making us believe, against all odds, that redemption is just a heartbeat away.
In equal measures have I felt the dank and musty trappings of fear in the distant reaches of my mind, pinned down the rabid animal that is hate threatening to take over my soul.
And yes, a million moons ago, I was touched by love.
The story starts, as very few do, on a pier.

The sun broke through the clouds as she stepped off the ferry and onto the pier. I watched silently as the gentle waves lapped at the hems of her dress, as the ferryman turned away and rowed off hurriedly.
I stood up and stretched, waved at her to come over.
"You must be the guide," she stated with an air of uncertainty, as she walked across the pier and onto the beach. I nodded shortly. I hadn’t been looking my best, and my clothes had never been something to excitedly write home about.
"What happened to this place?"
I turned around to stare anew at my abode of many, many years. The winding path that led to the village was strewn with sugar-coated candy wrappers, and my eyes caught the glint of jagged metal edges sticking out of the mud.
"I guess people get really hungry around here."
She laughed then, a delightful wave of joy, and the wind fell silent in awe as the sounds of her mirth echoed across the beach.
"I'm Anne," she said and reached out her hand in greeting.
I recoiled in horror and lurched back a few steps.
"Please don't try to touch me again."
And there was a pursing of lips, and there was a steady silence that hinted at a wellspring of anger buried deep. And she withdrew her hand, started walking down the path, staring fixedly at the distant village.

I was quite content to walk alongside her, and we trudged along the path, skillfully dodging the pieces of metal that threatened each time to blow us into bits.
She spoke finally, after a while, hesitation and annoyance uneasily coming to a truce in her voice.
"Did all of this land up here during the Great War?" she asked, as she poked at a metal piece with her foot.
"I'd be careful if I were you," I replied. "It was the First World War actually."
The butterfly of chaos had flapped its wings in a city amidst the clouds, and the thundering echoes of its passage had boomed across this island, as history and legend swept over and greedily embraced all of us. I had fought against my lord and master, commanded my own troops. I had viewed with dread the eerie calm with which was undertaken the merciless slaughter of civilians by the opposing armies. I had proudly given no quarter, nor asked for any, until desertion and attrition took their toll on our meager defences.
And, after the War ended, I had been sent here to seek salvation, if possible, an iota of mercy, if not.
"I knew your father," I said, and smiled as she gasped and stopped in her tracks. "I spoke to him many years ago, when he came to this island. He was an interesting man, a brave man." I paused, unusually unsure of myself, and took a deep breath. "He wanted to bring along his entire family, but you weren’t quite ready for the move yet."
I watched as her tears furiously ripped furrows in the layers of dust on her face, watched as she took out a dirty napkin from the folds of her dress and wiped her eyes and her nose, watched as the heaves and sobs subsided.
And then, finally - "How far are we from Havana?"
I grinned, resumed walking. "A hundred miles, give or take. We’ll stop at the village for refreshments."

The path took us through a sugar plantation tended by a plague of industrious ants, and as Anne chatted away happily about her family and her friends back in Amsterdam, morning slowly made way for late afternoon. The Sun looked a delicious shade of boiled yolk when we reached the ruins and thatched huts that comprised my village. The breeze bent to its thankless task of drying our sweat, carrying to our ears the harsh calls of ravens seemingly perched on every nearby tree.
"We should eat at Ernie's. Everybody comes to Ernie's," I said, savoring already the taste of fried mackerel and a pint of beer.
She gave me a puzzled smile. "It's Rick's, isn't it. Everybody comes to Rick's."
"Different place, honey, different time." I led the way to Ernie's inn, a sorry-looking dilapidated shack that once used to have a real roof, one that rarely leaked during the fierce storms that kept lashing our coast. Ernie's Inn, the sign swinging and creaking outside proudly proclaimed, Estd. 1961. And right below this was a singular coat of arms: a fish leaping out of the open mouth of a bull. Which made me hungrier still.

Anne took off her straw hat as we walked in through the swinging salon doors, and shook the sweat out of her long black hair. She looked up at me and grimaced.
"Ernie!" I shouted out, "There’s a guest with me!"
There was a noise from behind one of the tables in the corner, and Anne muffled a shriek as a woman dressed in black got up from her seat and stared at us.
"It's only Virginia. She’s not all there. Ignore her," said Ernie, standing behind us, armed with a batter and two mugs, scratching his white beard and leering at Anne, carefully avoiding my gaze. "So, what can I interest you in?"
My regular mackerel and beer was served up in no time at all, while Anne decided to feast herself on a green cake that I quite advised against.
It was with a relaxed sigh that I put my legs up on the table and pushed back my chair. Anne kept smiling at Ernie, who seemed happy enough to be at the receiving end of this show of emotion. Virginia sat at her own table and kept cooing and muttering to herself softly.
"You know, it's funny, the way Virginia turned up here," Ernie started off, addressing Anne as he handed me a cigar. I flicked out a pen knife, clean snapped off the cigar top, and lit it. The delicious aroma of tobacco filled the inn. All was right with the world.
"Funny how?"
I grunted and dusted some of the ash off my shirt. "She walked out of the ocean, all drenched and pale. Most people landing up on this island come via ferry, the way you did."
Anne shuddered faintly as Ernie frowned at me. Evidently, I was not supposed to interrupt. I laughed and pointed my cigar at him. "Now, this guy, when he came here, looked like an Egyptian mummy; his forehead was wrapped in bandages. I nursed him back to health."
I caught Ernie with a pleading look on his face. "That's worth a round you owe me Ernie, and you know it."
Ernie took my mug, turned around without a word and went back to the counter to fill it up.
"He's scared of losing his mind, Ernie is," I chuckled, as he pushed my mug back at me and sat down next to Anne. "So's Virginia, as far as I can tell." Virginia tilted her head and stared at us, upon hearing her name spoken aloud. The time had come to roll the dice.
"What about you, Anne? Anything that you're afraid of?"
She looked into my eyes then, did Anne, and the mists of the mind that had obscured my vision scattered away, and I saw, before she spoke, what she was afraid of.
"It's the dark. I'm afraid of the dark. I've always been."
Simple words, softly spoken. I understood, then, perhaps for the very first time, why humans alone, of all of His creatures, had been blessed with the gift of speech.
Ernie saw the look on my face. "You don’t have to go anywhere tonight. Why don’t you stay here?" he told Anne as his hand crept up to cover hers on the table.
I pushed my chair back as I got up, and smiled at Ernie, a smile cold enough to freeze the Sahara, before turning my gaze to Anne. "We should leave for Havana. Now." Ernie withdrew his hand quickly, and beads of sweat trickled down his forehead.
I walked up to the salon doors, peered at the gathering clouds of late evening. A bulbous moon peeked back at us through the bald bark of a dead tree outside the inn, before resuming its presence behind the clouds.
"The weather's perfect for a stroll in the night," I remarked to nobody in particular.
Ernie got up along with Anne, who seemed clearly reluctant to leave. "Perhaps we should -" he started.
The silence of the ravens was a thunderclap in my head as I walked out of the inn without waiting for a reply, followed shortly by Anne and, a few steps behind her, Ernie.
I thought it best to spare Ernie for now. "Go back to your inn, old man," I said, calmly, as my voice rose above the noise of the birds starting to flap their wings, ready to fly off. "Go back and seek your beloved marlin. It’s not your turn today."
The wind howled and the streetlights flickered in the gathering gloom as we watched each other, Ernie and I, a smile on my face, naked terror on his.
Ernie shrugged and walked back into the inn quietly. The inn was to remain in business for another day at least.
Anne stood by the door of the inn, silent as a tomb, watching me walk away. With a faint sense of satisfaction I heard no signs of her following me.
"Do you want to go to Havana?" I said, softly, as I came to a halt beneath a streetlight across the street, turning around and looking at her. She returned my gaze, then, gathering up her reserves of courage, still standing at the door to the inn, willing herself to make a move.
"Yes I do," she said, and we were plunged into darkness.

The darkness lasted for a year, a week, a month, a day, an hour, a minute, a second. The streetlight above my head flickered back into glorious gas-powered wonder, beating back the demons in the darkness chattering wildly at each other.
I stood in a circle of garish yellow light, surrounded by unseen voices that whistled, spoke, laughed, and cried, as the village lay wrapped in a cloak made out of the fabric of Night itself.
I glimpsed Anne’s outline across the road, her back pushed against the wall of Ernie’s inn. She was on her haunches, cowering, hiding her face.
"Can you see me Anne?" I said, and I had no doubts that she could. I raised my voice, "Don’t you want to go to Havana?"
"I'm scared," she called out, after a while.
I stood there quietly, listening to the ravens clawing and pecking away at unseen horrors.
"Do you trust me?"
She whimpered, then, at the sound of a raven choking. "Yes. Yes, I do."
"Come to me," I said, and stretched out my arms. "Come to me, and everything will be fine."
It was with unceasing wonder that I watched Anne as she lifted up her face, watched as she came to a decision, watched as she got up quietly, watched as she closed her eyes and took deep breaths, watched as she moved blindly towards my outstretched arms, ignoring the beating and flapping of leathery wings around her, ignoring the eerily human-like cries of hunger and envy that surrounded her, ignoring the million beady lifeless eyes that noted every step she took, that lusted after the blood in her veins.
She ignored them all, and she walked up to me.
And she collapsed in my arms with a faint shudder.
"Hush," I said, as I held her and stroked her hair. "Hush. It’s all right now."
It was then that she turned up her face towards me, her eyes full of tears of relief, it was then that she stood on her toes and leaned forward, it was then that I felt her soft lips on mine, it was then that I felt the force of her fierce embrace.
We stood there for a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a month, a week, a year.
We stood there for an eternity.
And as we disengaged, gently, she held my hand in hers, and she asked, "So when do we go to Havana?"
And I smiled at her, tears rolling down my cheeks.
And I said, "You're already here Anne. You’ve reached Havana."
And she vanished before my eyes, melting away into the darkness of the night, as my lips struggled to spell out what I needed to say, as I blinked a thousand times in vain to catch a last fleeting glimpse.
And I stood there and I cried, knowing too well that I would never see her again.

There is fear in us, in each of us, a cold fear that binds us to the world and mocks our greatest achievements.
The fear of the dark for Anne, the fear of turning insane for Ernie and Virginia.
The fear of Man for me.
She faced her fears, Anne did, and conquered them, painful step by painful step, the sheer urgency of years fading away as she came closer to her goal.
I have been on this island since the dawn of time. I have stayed here, and have faced my fears too, man by man, woman by woman, child by child. I have faced my fears, as waves of human flotsam and detritus beat down my island on their desperate way to Havana and to eternal life.
I have faced my fears.
The fear of Man’s touch. The fear of his speech. The fear of his laughter and his cries, and his love and his hate. The fear of his freedom.
"What is Man, that thou art so mindful of him?"
It was He who had asked me the question oh so many years ago. Lucifer, He had called me, Lord of the Morning. I was His first, His chosen.
It was He who had cast me out, thrown me down to this very island, to face my fears till the end of time itself.

There is hope in us too, in each of us. And as I walk down the hundred miles to Havana, as I get closer every day by an inch or two, I feel the grace of His gaze, the soft touch of His thoughts.
For is it not said that the meek shall inherit the Earth?
And if He bestows mercy onto all, won’t He bestow mercy onto me?
There is love in us, I know, in each of us. And I know a time will come, when enough souls have been guided on their journeys, when I have faced my fears and conquered them, that I shall be free to enter His loving embrace.
And there will be, nay, there shall be Light.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In Which A List of Books Is Covered

Here's a list of books that one's supposed to have read; mark those you have read already in bold, those that are on your bookshelf and are piteously crying out for a solid read in italics, and leave the ones you haven't touched with a bargepole (yet) without any markup. I assume, especially for the classics, that only unabridged works are allowed to be marked as read. (Or the list below shall light up in bold like a Christmas tree.)
The list is from Chandni apparently, via Whiny The Moo's blog. Here's some link love: Chandni and Mukta.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina (I believe this is Abhra Banerjee's copy. Ho ho ho.)
Crime and Punishment
Catch-22 (why half bold? Because I couldn't complete the book. Too darn repetitive.)
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion

Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose (Sigh. What a book. I quizzed Amitav Ghosh with points from this book.)
Don Quixote (One of the first books I read on my mobile phone. Geek.)

Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey (I read a translation by T E Lawrence, of Arabian fame. Yes. That dude on the bike.)

Pride and Prejudice (Ebook.)
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel (I've got an e-copy of Collapse with me, which I shall read some day inshallah.)
War and Peace

Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad (I'm counting audio books as well. :D)

The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner

Mrs. Dalloway (Seriously? I tried reading this once, and then gave up. It's called "opportunity cost"; I have very limited time on my hands.)
Great Expectations (Dickens' best.)

American Gods (Ahh. This book blew my mind away.)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Atlas Shrugged (Read this book just before entering college, like everyone else, and felt vaguely rebellious and anti-authority. Jeez.)
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
Quicksilver (First book of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Salute.)
The Canterbury Tales

The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera

Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum (Takes Dan Brown and whips his sorry posterior from Rome to London.)
Frankenstein (Read this one in 6th grade. What can I say - in Munger's words, I was a book with two legs sticking out.)
The Count of Monte Cristo
Dracula (Courtesy my elder brother. Also, The Omen, which was a hoot.)
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys (Sequel to American Gods, not nearly as nice, but you can still find traces of genius here.)
The Once and Future King (.genre this with possible is what to eyes my opened which book fantasy first The. If you've read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about.)

The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
1984 (My dad's gift to me in 7th grade, when I was leaning towards Communism. He saved my soul.)
Angels and Demons
Inferno (Audio book, narrated by John Cleese! Yay!)

The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Correction
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (My bro printed out and read the entire book in size 10 fonts. Yes, we are cheap people.)
The Prince

The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Slaughterhouse Five
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas (Again, I'm halfway through.)

The Confusion
Lolita (It's pretty funny actually. You should try reading it. Funny as in that weird guy who keeps staring at me at the bus stand, not funny as in ha-ha.)

Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow (What can I say? I'm still trying to understand this. Before you ask, no annotations, thank you.)

The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Now for the list of books I suggest you should read, off the top of my head:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (If you haven't read this yet, go kill yourself. Seriously. I might be able to help.)
The Agony And The Ecstasy (The closest historical parallel to Howard Roark.)
Pilgrim's Progess
The Decameron (The mother-lode of all framed stories in Western lit.)
The Rubaiyyat (Thank you Mondy.)
The Ramayana (A translation by Rajagopalachari ji.)
The Mahabharata (Again, the Gov-General's translation.)
Theogony (Those savages did have a vivid imagination.)
Fooled By Randomness (It dusts away all the cobwebs in your brain.)
Bill Bryson's Made In America (You learn so much more about your beloved language.)
Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (Simmons, not Keats. If you need to read one series in the science fiction genre, let this be it. You won't need anything else.)
Endymion and The Rise of Endymion (Simmons, not Keats.)
Contact (Read this from cover to cover, and understand what the word God actually means.)
Small Gods (Pratchett never fails to cheer me up, and this is, in my opinion, his best work [a hotly contested spot].)
Good Omens (Pratchett & Gaiman. What more can I say?)
Midnight's Children (Forget anything else he wrote. This is the best. Ever.)
The Lord of The Rings (Surprisingly missing from the previous list, probably because of the movies. After devouring this from cover to cover, I bought and read each of his books. Yes. That's all the ten or eleven books in the History of Middle Earth series as well. Ask me for personal recommendations from this body of work.)
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Moon and Sixpence
The "Song of Ice and Fire" series
Nightfall: A Collection of Short Stories (Not Asimov's collaboration with Silverberg, which is a piece of crap.)
Any collection of short stories by Philip Dick (Don't go for the novels. The stories are totally worth it though.)
Borges' Ficciones (Especially The Library of Babel.)
The Sandman Series (The best graphic novel series ever. You'll learn more about history and myth than from a million other books.)
Maus (Chilling rendition of WWII. Why is this special? Google's your friend.)
The Hero With A Thousand Faces
HG Wells' A Short History of the World (Covers everything from dinosaurs to WWI. Surprisingly interesting and readable. Try it out.)

Can't think of any more right now. I'll keep adding to this list. Or perhaps make it a permanent feature.
As for you, reader, consider yourself tagged.