Accomplishment by Prashant Bagad, Translated from Marathi by Kaushika Draavid
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Everyone has to kill at least once in their lifetime. I did it too. I mean, I almost did.

 

She was an acquaintance of mine. I even loved her to some degree. She too might have cared for me. Whatever the case, she had agreed to be killed. She had taken to the idea. Perhaps, she was also a devoted kind. We drew up a plan: I would slay her and she would be slain.

 

These were the events on the day I chose her. It was afternoon, my favourite time of the day. It’s when the world is as if in abeyance. When we slowly shed our lunch-induced lassitude and re-emerge into wakefulness. I like this transition. It makes me wonder, does time really stand still or does it take on the appearance of doing so due to the slack in human activity? Is this experience of afternoon an illusion or reality? That day, as I sat having spread the afternoon around me, she arrived. I was pleased at her appearance, but my afternoon disappeared. The sunshine, the houses and the people were reduced to their immediate identities. The space of possibilities vanished. I was troubled, while she remained calm. In an even tone, she began, ‘Look at these shadows. What’s a shadow? We think it’s the absence of unwanted sun, or a shelter against it, or some such thing. But what does it mean to deflect the sun? To deflect light. Darkness is what it is. A shadow is darkness.’ This was novel. I hadn’t thought about shadows in such terms before. I said to her spontaneously, ‘I’ll kill you, all right?’‘Why?’ she demanded. ‘Because you’re eligible,’ I replied. ‘Tell me more,’ she said. Then I began to explain, ‘Well, you know the tale of Romeo and Juliet, don’t you? Romeo calls her “the sun”. Not “the moon”. The moon isn’t its own source of light. But the sun is self-illumined. It gives light, warmth and life to the entire earth. Juliet is Romeo’s sun-goddess. She isn’t a fragile treasure like the moon. But that is not all. Even the sun isn’t shot through with light. Much of it still lies in the dark. Juliet must hold some darkness within her too. That is why Romeo calls her the sun. You say that shadow is darkness; you, too, emerge from the darkest depths, as Juliet did in Romeo’s vision of her. Anyone who loves you can see it. For now, I’m your lover. So, I’m going to kill you. You’re fit to be killed.’ She may have got the drift. But she said nothing. She left much the same way she had come. Not that the afternoon would return after her departure. The hour stood before me; I accepted it as it was and dived in.

 

I began to dream often of murders. There’s no fierce sun outside, neither the clammy humidity, just the vision of four immaculate clouds outside the window, and I’m slaying her gently inside my office. No blood dripping. No screams. A quiet death. Afterwards, the world doesn’t jabber on about it. In another dream, there are variously coloured balloons in the office. A silent split AC takes the place of the loud window AC. She sports a Buddha-like smile. Her eyes inspire trust in me. After her demise, her face rests on my manly thigh. I began to pass my days pouring the contents of my dreams into my conscious thought. The days care little for what we do with them in any case. In one of the dreams, she’s convulsed with spasms. She pulls me close and instantly pushes me away. I float in space. She dies slowly. The slowness is unbearable. I try to avert it. You could have described me then as the man who dodged just the one dream.

 

We began to meet more frequently after I chose her for the kill. She once asked, ‘Did it never occur to you that shadow is darkness? Really?’‘Really,’ I told her. ‘What else?’ she queried. ‘Well, I’ve been thinking. How does a shadow come into being? It comes into being when light is blocked in its path by an object. One is walking down the road. There’s a fierce sun up above. One just has to bring one’s palm over one’s face. A tiny palm comes between the sun and the face, casts a shadow, and the sun is thwarted. The entire enormous sun. The unalive, unintelligent behemoth of our sky. The distant stranger that we care so little for, but which, by going cold, could spell the end of us all, our whole earth. A palm is all it takes. Or look at it this way. It’s very sunny. Awfully so. One spots an old, broken wall. One moves swiftly towards it and takes refuge in its wedge of a shadow. There’s a humongous fiery ball up in the sky but there’s also this shade down here. The wall is one’s shield of protection. Whether we use the primeval gesture of the hand, or shield ourselves at a wall as civilizational beings, we manage to checkmate the sun. The sun may be oblivious to the politics of this but that’s immaterial. A mere solitary human enters the league of planetary giants by a lift of a hand, or with the aid of a mere wall. In shielding ourselves under a shadow, we’re throwing a challenge to these myriad orbs spinning in the hollow of the heavens. Or we’re saying hello to them.’ She heard me out but it didn’t seem to make much of a dent on her. She just sat there. Her downy right arm lay horizontally on my table. I was beginning to feel a little bored when she said, ‘Mine is the right view. A shadow is darkness, the absence of sun, the sunless.’ And she left. The world shifted and settled in a new place. I felt like the remnant of her act of leaving. I got up from the chair and sat myself down on the floor.

 

Apart figuring in my dreams, she was also being supervised by a colleague of mine for her MPhil. She sometimes appeared at his office while I was there. She would rap at the door and peep in and our eyes would meet. Outside, during our chance meetings, if our relation progressed beyond cursory smiles, it was only thanks to a certain dream I had. This dream has me shirtless. My upper body is fully unclothed. A pair of jeans and a belt is all I have on. She is astride my back. Her legs scissor across me in front. Her chin bumps against my head. Gingerly, I climb down the stairs and carry her into the basement of the library. We have come to look for certain issues of some old journals. Many times, she inhales my new perfume with pleasure. I don’t put her down. I don’t stop for rest. On my back, or out of it, blossoms a love of ceaseless absorption. I see vividly her teeth revealed in laughter, her gums, the shifting shape of her lips, as though her face on my back casts a quivering reflection on the screen of space before me and I have a direct and immediate view of it. Later, she’s seen moving about the serpentine gloom of the basement like a little girl, searching through heaps of journals, chatting with unacquainted library workers. And then the events play out in reverse. Once again, I’m climbing down the stairs. On my back is a flower. When I get down with my bare, awkward body, I see my wife, ensconced in a circular leather sofa – the kind one finds at the centre of art galleries – and staring at me in amazement. From my naked consciousness, there emerges a laugh, free and unfettered. I point to the woman on my back. My wife laughs. I am unashamed. My wife fades into oblivion. We meander through the basement as before. I spent two days reflecting on the dream. Then I emailed her to meet me for a formal discussion at my office. ‘You were the vetal in my dream, and there was no sword in my hand. But I was very aware of my back the whole time,’ I told her. ‘Your laughter cascaded onto my body,’ I added. Her eyes suddenly lost their spark of innocence. In an ascetic tone, she demanded, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ I said, ‘Never before have I had such a precise dream. The elephant of dream-space warns us with his trunk lifted in the air. You, me, the stairs, the world, the water and endless space. Are you willing?’‘I am,’ she said. From that day, I bestowed upon her a misty glow and a snake-like visuality.

 

A murder calls for much preparation in advance. A decision must be taken on how one is going to kill. If a weapon is needed, it must be procured. I hear that in England, they use the plain old kitchen knife. It is said to be quite effective. If you want to kill by stabbing, that is. My vague middle-class plan was to get hold of a poison, easily obtained from any insecticide shop, and mix it with a sweet. She approved of the plan. She did not have a taste for bloodletting and extravaganza either. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Once, she had a long squabble with me. She said, ‘The true shadow is the shadow of a tree. All the rest are pretenders. It’s totally wrong to say that the tree obstructs the path of light, that it comes in front of it. The tree perennially wears its shadow on its feet, very naturally. That’s how a tree is. It’s natural for its numerous leaves to shape a lattice of shadows. It has nothing to do with blocking and counter-blocking, much less with humans. This is the real shadow. The rest are not, not in the same sense. To say that there’s a sun in the beginning, and its light travels forth, runs into an obstacle, and thus forms a shadow – that’s nonsense! Look at it from the other end. Begin from the shadow that lies under a tree, and look up to the trunk, the leaves, then the light beyond that canopy, and then in that distant blue expanse, the sun, etc. Everything is in its place. There’s simply no question of obstruction of light.’ I tried to get a word in. ‘Look, the shadow is created the minute a human being steps under a tree. He brings them both into being, the tree and its shadow, instantly, and he uses them.’ Her reaction to this was, ‘So the human checkmates the shadow itself. He destroys it. He uses it. No, the shadow exists in and of itself. It has no need of the tree. It is independent of the soil as well. You are wrong to suppose that it lies fallen on the ground. Humans sever it from itself, with no justification whatsoever, and make a weapon out of it.’ I chose to remain mum.

 

A long time ago, in another era altogether, when I was a depressed PhD student and spent my days thinking of Hamlet – just returned from Wittenberg, plotting revenge for his mother, freezing like the weather around him – I had watched a film. I still remember the actor. Why, I even remember his name. But what shall we do with the name? A name brings with it a whole world, the past and the future. Let’s leave all that out. The actor. He is skinny. He dons black gloves. His hair falls in locks on his forehead. He likes to visit sites under construction. Half-constructed buildings, where the foundation has been laid, the columns are up, the skeletons of the storeys are in place, and the frames of doors and windows are set up. Anybody viewing the building would wonder whether the scaffolding has been removed or buried within the construction. He climbs the steps swiftly. He carries a fine plastic thread in his pocket. He uses it to slit throats. When he is finished, he climbs back down. His activities are recorded exactly in this manner in the books of a renowned crime writer of the first half of the last century. If you wish to get to the bottom of this, you must search for those books. The other characters carry out their investigation. He commits the murders one after another, rolls up the thread when he’s done, and descends down stairs of wet red bricks, whistling. The man is a crime specialist. He isn’t particularly interested in money. He isn’t a pervert. He isn’t bloodthirsty. He doesn’t even know the people he kills. He is a neat killer. Killing is his special talent. If we wished to play a game of chess, and play it well and hard, wouldn’t we rather play it with a seasoned player than a gentleman?

 

It was the month of October. A dazzling sun was out, after the previous day’s unexpected rains. I had shaved that morning. When I stand before the mirror, shaving, I put a certain extra pressure on my feet, unconsciously. Perhaps, my body grips the floor hard with the soles of its feet, in an effort to support my act of running a blade over my own face. It is as if my feet spring an abstract curvature in order better to grasp the ground. But later, when I’m rubbing alum on my shaved skin, the feet slacken and return home to a reposeful freedom. Only the calves sometimes retain a mild ache that lasts for a while. The water on my clean face shows up my eyes with a peculiar clarity. With these clear eyes, I left the house. Eyes are wayfarers. Her long riverine arms, that I had dwelt on in the night when my wakefulness was dipping into sleep, now made their way into my daydream. A term suggested itself: ‘shadow-beams’. So I took her along to the Naval hills. These are not a single, unified series of hills, but an entanglement of numerous little ones. One of these hills is tall and looks fine from a distance; that is where Ajit has set up his pigeon house. He doesn’t stay there; a couple of his apprentices do. He raises nearly seventy to eighty Hyderabadi pigeons. There is a boat-like hollow adjoining the tall hill. The pigeons live there in wooden cages. When the pigeon-racer named Samir – a boy-faced SIM-card seller and an acquaintance of ours – sees us, he gestures as if throwing some almond feed from the platter in his hand, and calls the pigeons out of their cages. When he signals, about five of them take off into the sky. They go out about a kilometer, touch the rain tree that appears to be their goalpost and return. Then they turn and glide over our heads. As we watch enrapt their floating, we are carried into a state of meditative concentration. Samir complains that the sky is messed up by the cell phone towers. He also tells us that the fear of the anti-Encroachment Department keeps Ajit bhai away from the hills. Then, with excitement, he asks, ‘Have you come to enquire about the shadows?’ I nod. He turns to her. He notices her nails. Each one is painted a different colour. He laughs. ‘Mismatch,’ she says. I say to the both of them, ‘Ajit bhai calls pigeons that have such spots on their necks “spangled-necks”. ’‘Somebody has read the entire dictionary, it seems,’ she teases. Samir laughs again. Samir says people who bet on shadows are rare. Pigeons that fly very high do not cast shadows, or if they do, we cannot see them. Keeping a watchful eye on shadows and comparing them is a tall order. The masters of the trade stay away from that trap. Ajit bhai’s elder brother recounts a memory, from some hundred-odd years ago, of a master who lived in Lucknow or Agra. The whole thing began with Maruti, they say. The son of the wind god is the true king of all birds of flight. When he was off on his aerial journey to Lanka, his enormous body cast its shadow on the ocean below. In those waters lived a demoness named Sinhika, who kept herself amused by counting the shadows cast by birds. She was a past master at the art of capturing shadows and exasperating the travellers above. She would clutch their shadows in her gigantic fists and slow them down. They would be left floundering, like ships stalled by adverse winds. Sinhika was fascinated with Maruti’s immense shadow. It took her no special effort to capture it. Maruti was baffled. He looked all around. It began to dawn on him that his shadow was no longer travelling with him, but being held captive by a woman in the ocean. He dived down. Or rather, the great Hanuman plummeted through the air as Sinhika gave a sharp turn to his shadow. Sugriv had warned him of this danger in the path. Recalling his words, Maruti murmured to himself, ‘This must be Sinhika.’ It was clear to him that she was about to devour both his shadow and him. He began to inflate himself. Almost in tandem, Sinhika too began to open her jaws wider. Now Maruti shrank himself and flew into her gargantuan mouth. He ripped asunder her vital parts and made a quick exit. Sinhika’s colossal frame crumbled into the ocean. The travellers passing by above hailed Maruti. A conjecture was thrown around by some of the pigeon-racers of Agra and Lucknow, that one could distract the pigeons in sport by stepping on their shadows. It caught on, as such things always do. Many an apprentice and semi-expert began to chase after pigeon shadows. Tripping over each other, they would injure themselves badly. A farman had to be issued by the nawab –  Let the shadows roam freely. This was a vexation for the shadow-addicts. After some thought, they came up with a sort of workaround. They spread the canard that by merely looking at a pigeon’s shadow from afar, one could foretell the future of its flight. They even produced a couple of treatises on the science of shadows. Anyone could now dabble in Sinhika-like thinking; without moving even an inch, one could erect a whole bewitching castle of pretence and lay claim to the secrets of the magnificent creatures that straddled sky and earth. All this is in the past now. No more the fixation with pigeon shadows. Samir seemed to be hungry. He hastily put the pigeons back in their cages. Then he left. A stillness remained. On a tree to our left, there sat some wild, unclaimed grey pigeons. When I counted, there turned out to be four of them in all. There were no bells on their feet. We climbed down. She took her leave. I went to a restaurant and ate full to the brim.

 

Usually, we met at my office. My square office. If restless, I would pull the only window in the room closer. Meanwhile, she would knock on the door and enter before I could say ‘Yes.’ The office would bounce off her glasses in splinters. I couldn’t rest until I had gathered them all. ‘How else would the office gain its existence?’ So saying, I would piece the fragments back together. She wasn’t coy. So I would say to her, ‘If only these visitors’ chairs were a little higher, we could’ve done it right here.’ She would say, ‘No roleplaying please, or I’ll complain to the Women’s Cell.’ Of course, the matter never ended there. A stream of gazes flowed towards me, from her eyes, her arms, her breasts. There blossomed in me an inner life, making me voluble. For no particular reason, I would split into two. Realising that she only saw what was outside, while I remained absorbed in the inner spectacle, I would try to feed into her. Then an upsurge of several such moments of realisation would follow, of knowing that the outer being she saw was not visible to my own self. This knowledge would wash over everything. I would then have to try and bring myself into existence all over again. One day, she dropped by casually, for no special reason. I said to her, ‘Look at the passenger who boards a bus. As a new entrant on the scene, what does he do? He takes stock. He observes people’s positions. There’s no confusion on his face. Confusion is a cultural stage that appears later. He is still a primordial being. His subconscious notes the position of the benches. The seated ones are well entrenched. They have brought a certain kind of organisation to the space inside. They have also risen above this arrangement of their own making and are now free to gaze at sundry other things. But it still remains for the new passenger to go through all this. He is aware that the seated passengers are putting him through a test and laughing silently at his predicament; this makes him quiver. Donning an air of adroitness, he finds a seat among the seated ones, or merges with those that are standing. His nonchalance is a mask that hides his enormous effort.’

 

In the end, I bought an old wooden trunk from a magician. I got rid of everything that made it alien – the paint on it, and the myriad spots and labels – and washed it clean. It was mine now. I brought it into the office. Everything was planned. As soon as she arrived, I would cram her into the trunk, no words exchanged, then thrust the sword into the trunk and run it across, end to end. She came as usual. As if she had just been born and I were viewing her from a freshly descended darkness. I lifted her up, grabbing her neck in my hand, and dropped her into the trunk. She wasn’t going to scream. I put the sword in with dexterity. Swiped it across slowly. There was no movement in the trunk. I threw open the door of the office. I opened the window as well. A literature teacher uses the room next door. I knocked on her door. Then I knocked on the door of the economist opposite her office. The PhD students who had come to mark their attendance looked at me intently. The literature colleague walked straight into my office. She said, ‘The institute expects thematic affairs. There you go.’ I stood in the half-lit corridor. I only had the corridor. She emerged from my office like a question that survives an analysis and walked down the corridor.

 

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The original Marathi short story titled ‘Siddhi’ appeared in Mukta Shabda, Diwali, 2016, pp. 204-07 and 224.

 

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Prashant Bagad is a writer and critic. He has received the Baburav Bagul Shabda Award and P. N. Pandit Award for his short story collection, Vivade Vishade Pramade Pravase. His short stories, poems and literary critical essays have appeared in distinguished Marathi literary journals such as Anushtubh, Anubhav, Mukta Shabda and Bhasha ani Jeevan. Some of his stories in English translation have appeared in The Indian Quarterly and Guftugu. He is currently working on a long narrative. He is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

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Kaushika Draavid is a researcher, translator and photographer. She lives and works in Banaras, Kanpur and Pune.