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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the April 2015 issue

Two Minutes

1

“A short story by a Spanish writer comes to mind. Can’t remember the author’s name, or the title. It’s just that the story refuses to leave my mind… A Spanish playwright who had written many successful plays. Now he’s writing a brilliant play. It’s shaping up very well. Only the last act remains to be written. At this point, he‘s arrested for having opposed Franco’s authoritarianism and for having plotted against him. He is to be shot the next morning. Not a single thought passes through the playwright’s mind the entire night. At the early hour of 6:58 a.m., Franco’s men line him up against the wall. Just two minutes more and the playwright will be shot as soon the soldiers receive the order from their leader to fire. In those two minutes, the writer’s brain springs into action. The play is completed. Not only that, but it is edited line by line in the author’s mind and is staged, as well. He is astonished. Has the death sentence been revoked? How had he managed to finish? At exactly seven o’clock, the writer’s body, pierced by bullets, slumps to the ground.”  

When he read this particular piece in the newspaper, he was perturbed. Nowadays, shopkeepers pack everything in plastic bags. But peanuts are still wrapped in old newspapers. How fortunate that he bought peanuts today.

He went back to the shop where he bought the peanuts. “Do you have the newspaper this page is part of?” he asked.

“Look here. These are also loose sheets of waste paper. There are no complete newspapers here.”

Someone had sold this page as paper by weight to this peanut shop, along with pages from children’s notebooks, application forms for shares, and a wad of flyers advertising a play. So, that page must have come to the vendor somehow, from somewhere. Perhaps the person who sold the paper to the shopkeeper had bought roasted peanuts for a rupee from another shop. Did people who buy peanuts to munch collect the papers they’d come wrapped in? No, as soon as they’d eaten the peanuts, they’d crumple up the paper and throw it away. And then, as if waiting for that very thing, a cow would come and eat the crumpled paper. There were still many cows roaming the town.

He went home and read the newspaper piece again with more care. It must have been around ten to twelve years old. Or even older. How cleverly the writer had made a complete story from this one piece of information. It was possible to infer from this abridged version the dimensions of the original story. How could one forget the name of the writer or the title of such a fine work?

He, too, had forgotten all sorts of things. Especially, the titles of books and poems that he’d read, the names of friends, the names of neighbors . . . it’s all very well to forget names, but he had forgotten faces, too. He cannot now recall most of the faces of even those people who had been important in his life at some point. If forgetting those faces caused such misery, how much more sorrowful would he feel if he forgot the faces of those near and dear to him. Along with the ache, there would also be the torment of shame. The person who wrote this précis would have surely felt a similar pain gnaw at his heart.

It didn’t seem like a big deal to forget where he’d placed keychains, coins, an umbrella or a pen. People the world over forget something like this and search for it. But can faces and stories be forgotten as well? Once forgotten, can they ever be retrieved? He tried to bring to mind the faces of his parents. How should he remember Amma? In what clothes, and at what age? If he’d forgotten his own mother’s face, was it any wonder he could forget the name of a story he’d read or the author who wrote it?

He read the page over and over again. Next to the story, there was also a letter to the editor and a retort from the editor responding to criticism from another editor. They  mostly continued on another page. So except for the story and the letter, no other item was complete.

He tried to recall some other stories that he had read and forgotten. A rich, motherless American girl falls in love. Although her father does not approve, he agrees to the marriage and a wedding does indeed take place. On the wedding night, the scoundrel absconds with all her jewels and money. After that, neither the girl nor the father ever steps out of the house. The father dies soon after. In deference to his daughter’s wishes, his last rites, too, are performed outside the house. Many years pass. The girl never leaves the house. No outsider is allowed to enter the premises. All things needed to run the house, such as groceries and milk, are accounted and paid for by a manservant. One day, the girl—now an old woman—dies. After burying her, the important figures in town enter the house. In the bedroom, on one half of the large bed, lies a shrivelled, decaying body wearing the clothes of a bridegroom of long ago. It is the girl’s husband . . . Signs that someone had slept next to the body every night. On one of the pillows, a strand of the girl’s hair.

After he’d read the story, he’d spent many hours as if in a trance. The girl had spent some forty or fifty years sleeping beside a skeleton. And what of the man who’d married her? How was it he had died still in his bridegroom’s clothes? Had she dressed him after he died? What sort of mental make-up could she have had to lie by the side of a corpse day after day? And what about the mental make-up of the writer who had written about a girl with such a heart? He couldn’t remember the name of the writer. He had forgotten the title of the story. But he could still remember the name of the girl. Emily.

He could only recall the story whose title he had forgotten. What he ought to have remembered was the author’s name. He also ought to bring back to his memory the title and author of the story in the newspaper used to wrap the peanuts. He ought at least to have made a guess.

He could not eat or drink that day. It seemed that the peanuts had filled his stomach enough to last four or five days. He tried to recall all that he had read throughout his life in chronological order. First there were his school textbooks. All that came to mind were the moustaches and beards that he had drawn on all the faces in the books without exception. Only after he’d been thrashed for it a few times did he lose the habit of drawing mustaches on the pictures found in books.

For quite some time he had thought that mustaches sprouted only on some faces and not on others. That a person’s mustache was determined at birth, much like his eyes, ears or nose. If not, why would Hitler’s mustache have been a small square beneath his nose while actor Errol Flynn’s was a pretty streak just above his upper lip? Errol Flynn did not have to indulge in sword fights; all he had to do was smile once, mustache bristling. Princesses were charmed. Enemies fled in fear.

How many years had it been since he’d seen an Errol Flynn film? It must have been more than thirty years since Errol Flynn died. Seeing one of his films could make one happy for an entire week. Even a broomstick would swish. And become a sword. All four-legged animals would seem like galloping horses. Tiled houses would appear like palaces. The princess with her ladies in waiting would bestow an audience from the balcony.

 

2

“Ayyo! What‘s wrong? Why is there a stench in this house?” My younger brother stands in the veranda outside laughing.

“What‘s there to laugh about?”

Asking, “What, da?” he went up to his brother.

”Look at this, Thambi.” He pointed to the place where a  bicycle was parked.

On the seat of the cycle, a corpse, seesawing like the scales of a balance.

A dead body in the house. Someone had left the corpse on the bicycle. Had it fallen from somewhere above? It had fallen right in the middle of the seat and was swinging from side to side. Like the scales of the god of justice. Was it a god of justice, or a goddess? Whoever it was, they would be blindfolded. But what was to be done now with the corpse?

He was trembling all over. As for his brother, he was laughing and enjoying the scene, unable to understand the consequences of finding a corpse in the house. As the eldest member of the family, he would be the one to get dragged away.

“Dei, give me a hand, da. Let’s hide it somewhere.”

“Why don’t we throw it into the pond there?”

All of a sudden, a pond appeared in front of the house. A very big pond. With water overflowing. Where had it come from? Until then, not a single house where they had lived had ever had a well. Even in this house, they had to haul water from a pipe outside the previous evening itself.

Now a huge pond just in front of the house. Suddenly the street had become a stately avenue. Now chariots would pass by.

He and his brother hauled the corpse together and threw it into the pond. The light was dim outside. Still, a few people might be awake. What if they had noticed?

As dawn broke his anxiety increased. His insides were churning like fine clay. He was restless. As the sun rose higher, the throbbing in his head was becoming unbearable. He decided that he himself would surrender to the police. But what reason would he give for turning himself in? Why would anyone turn himself in just because he discovered a dead body? Then they might ask where the corpse was. Dumping a body into a pond could be considered a crime. What grave punishment would it bring? Should he really be tormenting himself over something like this?

This argument did not lessen his anxiety. When it seemed as if his head would burst, a police inspector and a constable arrived. Two others fished out the corpse and laid it on the street.

“Was it you who threw the body into the pond?”

“Yes, it was. It was me alone. But I didn’t kill him. I don’t know how the corpse got here.”

”Are you sure you don’t recognize the body?” the inspector asked.

“I don’t. I really don’t.”

“Look properly and tell me.”

“I don’t have to look. I don’t recognize the body.”

“Just look at it once and tell me again.”

The inspector’s voice was menacing. He looked at the dead man’s face.

It was his father.

“Appa, Appa!”

“What, da? You’ve killed your father and now you are wailing and calling out his name?”

“It’s been eighteen years since my father died. To be precise, nineteen years.”

“So you’re telling me this isn’t your father’s dead body?”

“It’s my father. My father, certainly. The father who died long ago . . . I was the one who lit the pyre.”

“Come to the station, da. Some story you are spinning.”

Everything seemed like a film. He was brought before a judge. The judge—who did not even want to look at a sinner who had killed his own father—said, “Hang him tomorrow!”

By that time, he’d resolved to face death. “When? In the morning?” he asked.

“Five o’clock sharp tomorrow morning.”

“Just one request.”

‘What is it? Not a chance of freedom or a life term.’

“Just a small plea. Instead of five, hang me at two minutes past five.’”

“What difference does two minutes make?”

“Everything rests on those two minutes. A mere two minutes.”

“OK. You’ll hang at exactly two past five.”

As his wife and children stood crying around him, he felt like telling them that it was an absurd show. Instead of crying, how nice it would have been if they had given him some details about the two stories.

Even after he was thrown into prison, his thoughts continued to hover around the Spanish playwright and the American girl, Emily. He thought that his father’s dead body had come to him only because of them. His father had cared for him. And at the same time, had a good sense of humor, as well.

He spent a sleepless night. And no answers, either, for his questions. The prison officials came at four in the morning to make arrangements for his hanging. Though he obeyed all their orders, his mind was on Spain and America.

At exactly 4:55, he was hoisted onto the platform and the noose was put around his neck. If they pushed the plank beneath his feet, he would hang and die. The speed of his fall would make the noose break the stem of his neck. Once that happened, he would be declared dead. But his body would continue to hang there, writhing, for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Five o’clock. He had only two more minutes to live. It couldn’t be said that only books from Spain were in Spanish. The language was spoken in many parts of the world. There are many writers there too Spanish is spoken in three-quarters of South America. Someone there could have written the story about the Spanish playwright. But who? A story set in the era of Franco’s revolution. So it should be sometime before 1940. Which writer from South America could have written such a story?

It came to him in a flash. The hero of the story was not a Spanish playwright. It was a Czech playwright. Those who dragged him away to be shot were not Franco’s men. They were German Nazis. The person who could have written the story . .  . no, the person who wrote it was Borges. Jorge Luis Borges. This story must have been written by him. However much the Nazis harassed, tortured, and led him to his death, the hero of the story—the playwright—had a secret that he would not reveal: the play he had been writing. In just two minutes, he completed the play, edited it not once but twice, etched all the nuances, and finally staged it in his imagination. This was a miracle, one might say. A secret miracle. The story in itself was a secret miracle.

The story of Emily might also have been written around the same time. Had it been a really old story, you could ascribe it to Edgar Allen Poe. But this was a twentieth-century tale. If such a story had been written in America in the first half of the twentieth century, it could be only by one writer: William Faulkner. Only he could have penned it. Why had it not been obvious for so long? The brain worked with great speed only when one had just a few minutes to live. It drew the right conclusions. Things that were unclear for years and months had become crystal clear in a flash. Now he could die. But there was just one more detail left. That peanut wrapper. Who could have written that story printed on it? Who, some twenty years ago, would have written in Tamil about Borges? He would not have had more than a hundred readers. Who was the Tamil writer who wrote for a mere hundred readers?

Ah! What stupidity! How had this little detail been so elusive? It was Ka Na Su, who had written for only a hundred readers. The piece of paper must have been torn from the journal where Ka Na Su was editor. One of those hundred readers must have died. His wife and children would have gone through his possessions. They would have thrown away his collection of old papers. Or sold them to the peanut shop. Ka Na Su, too, was no more. At the time of his death, his own long-deceased father had appeared as if to fetch him. It would have been wrong to say that Yama’s messengers come to take people to the other world. It is one’s father who comes. In his own case, his father had come as a corpse. His father had provided answers to the questions that had been gnawing and eating him up. All that was left was to accompany him to his death. Everything was ready.

 

3

. . . Somewhere a clock was chiming ten, twelve, twenty and so on. It was a fifty-year-old wall clock. The people of that area never wound the clock since its chimes always went haywire. Someone who hadn’t been in the know must have wound it up so that it was continually chiming.

Unable to bear the sound, he got up and switched on the light. The clock was still chiming.  The time was exactly two minutes past five.

© Ashokamitran. Translation © 2015 by Padma Narayanan and Subashree Krishnaswamy. All rights reserved.

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