Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Man in a Shroud

One afternoon I passed by a station and heard someone call out my name from behind. It was an old acquaintance. I was surprised he recognized me. Instantly I remembered who he was. He had not changed in appearance. It was 8 years before when we studied together in a class. I do not wish to delve into the circumstances of our acquaintance. Strange to see how time had relieved the two of us from the strain of the pressures of the academic days of high school. He even gave me his visiting card and threw light on some radical choices he had made with respect to his career. Considering those times my memories of him were certainly contradicted to a large degree.

Years passed by and I did not see him afterwards.

I had been busy trying to discover if there was any inscription hidden in a monument. This occupied my time. Groping in the dark my passion remained ignited by the thrill of a possible breakthrough all the same. Much to my disappointment I did not find any inscription but as I left the hallway a coat fell on my shoes. I shuddered to think there was somebody else in the monument. I put aside the coat and left through the dark passage till I got out. The monument was indeed cut off from the rest of the world, remote in every sense of the word.
I thought that I had a reasonably good chance of finding the inscription which would have validated some of the claims made by a researcher of the name Ashok, who I happened to get acquainted with; the raison d etre for our acquaintance being we shared a common idea and I vouched for his singular preoccupation. The inscription was a document by a rationalist who wanted to prove that the monument belonged to a community “Vapas” who were forced to vacate it on grounds of being irreligious. This was hidden in the monument itself according to Ashok and the irony was that no one was able to find it till date.

The belief that the monument was the house of God would be mistaken but the rationalist was not able to prove it. Ashok wanted to take up this challenge and prove it. Till any evidence was found one way or the other, the monument would belong to no one. The name of the rationalist, I cannot reveal because he did not permit me or Ashok to do so. As to why this monument was believed to be 'the house of God' I shall explain herewith. 

In 2000 AD, when there were tragedies in many places, this monument provided shelter to scholars who lost debates. They were in hiding because they did not comply to a cruel condition of the debate they took part in. The condition was that if they were to lose the argument they would have to leave the town or they would have to jump into the river. These scholars knew that losing an argument is not tantamount to being wrong necessarily. The defeat may simply imply that they did not argue well. I tend to agree with this because articulation skills vary which by themselves have nothing to do with what is correct. You may lose an argument and still not be convinced by the other party. However, the scholars agreed to the terms which were preposterous. Subject to defeat incidentally, they were in trouble. The “Vapas” received them in their home which well resembled a dingy version of a palace. It was clean no doubt but it suffered from an acute lack of lighting. In their house they took shelter continuing to practice what they believed in. Later on the “Vapas” community tried to increase their number but their ways were not popular. There were some rulers who found them irreligious because they never prayed; they never worshipped any gods. They were quite docile and faded in number gradually. When the other natives no longer tolerated them despite their generosity, they left the country. A myth prevailed that there is a Vapa still living in the monument.
The scholars and refugees who gained freedom later on helped spread the name of the monument without making any reference to the Vapas. This was to express a token of their gratitude in silence. The monument was known as 'the house of God' as its origin was unknown. The rulers supposedly banished the last of the Vapas from the monument. Ashok wished to prove the bitter irony of the situation. It was their own house that they were forced to leave.
“It is alarming what research can reveal” Ashok said. “This is why people such as I are not allowed to have a voice.” A voice barred from being heard stifles the spirit that canvases its being with life. The researcher is an entitled grave digger as much as you and I. It is quite simply a matter of passion. The one who emerges from the sweet deceit of paradise runs away from a truth brushed aside as invalid on grounds of prejudice no more than a bird that attempts to fly away from its own shadow mistaking it for threat.

Just as I was having a long conversation with Ashok, we heard a loud noise outside our premises. It hurt the vocal chords more than I would like to have you believe. My friend who did not appear as perturbed followed me outside. A curfew prevailed and we did not feel an uneasy eagerness to find out the reasons for the same. We wished to head back. “Let us go back. It must be some needless commotion.” Before I could turn back, Ashok was distracted by his neighbour’s broken window. I chanced to see the day break when a lady in a shroud ran across the road past the scene into a vacant avenue beyond which she was seen no more. In wonder over the strange distraction that befell us my friend with renewed curiosity interrogated the constable in command over the commotion, “Sir, what happened?” He replied duty-bound, “Apparently, a sacred document has been stolen.” In matters such as these it would not be too much of a coincidence if our anxiety felt invited. For obvious reasons I pushed further, “what is this sacred document about?” Pat came the phlegmatic reply, “the inscription regarding the monument of the Vapas”.
“Could that lady who ran across the road have had anything to do with it?” I doubted. Ashok adjoined, “Do you remember where she was headed?”- “I could not see. It seemed like she was headed straight past the avenue but what was bizarre was that no one around noticed.” “This was more distracting”. “We need to get the inscription, Tunap.” “I am not quite sure if that lady had anything to do with it at all, if that is what you are suggesting.” “Of course not Ashok, it is hard to tell but ...”

Suspicion has its ways of reminding us of possibilities we cannot rule out. Suspicion indeed makes of a man a surgeon even if he desires to forgo paranoia for peace of mind. Peace good friend, once lost to suspicion can be recovered only by exhausting every possibility, however insignificant or trivial. To say the least, we were set out to do exactly that.
We parted with my words for the evening, “Let us break for now till tomorrow brings us a new road. The inscription is stolen and I shall make further enquiries. Till then do not let agitation mar your sleep.” Let me know of any inputs that you may get.”
I tried to unravel this mystery of the stolen inscription through an agent but without much help from luck. Late at night around 1.40 AM, I got a call from Ashok. “Tunap, I saw her.” –The same lady. – “Yes but I could not see her face.” “She left some cover in a drop box and left.”-“Ashok, how do you know if it was the same lady.” Tunap replied overdosed, “I just know. Come here at once. Do I have something to share with you! I cannot reveal further. Be here at once.” With these words he hung up. So much for suggestion!

I went to his place in disguise. The street was absolutely quiet. The deafening silence surrounding the avenue gave the night sky a visible air which when subject to detail stimulated the classic syn-esthetic effect akin to a parallel universe. I waited and waited. When my patience threw me a mirage, I retained just about enough sense to realize the illusion of my depleting consciousness. It was 2.15 AM. The door opened when behind it Ashok showed me inside. He turned on the lights in his study room and on doing that I could see an expression I do not remember having seen in my life. “I was at the counter. After a few minutes I found the drop box broken. Here is the cover with a letter.”
The letter read as follows:
It may seem surprising to you that I have observed your interest well before you even took notice of me. It is said that there are no coincidences particularly considering what familiarity can do to bring distant individuals to a common ground. You may not be aware, gentlemen but truth is never what it seems. The inscription that you have been searching for is with me. Meet me at the frill zone tomorrow at half past one. You will find me very easily.
I am,
The Man in a Shroud.

“It seems like it wasn’t a lady after all, does it Tunap”.  –“Not necessarily, it could also be a deliberate ploy to confuse us. In any case, it is the same person. We should meet this ‘man in the shroud’. We decided to leave for frill zone the next day as directed. Ashok rushed to the study room where he popped in Valium, one after another. Undoubtedly, he had spent sleepless nights. I left him to return in 8 hours; we left for the place and there we saw one sitting in the corner in a shroud. The person got up and secretly walked away. We followed him to a bar just next to the frill zone. It was hard to believe it was a man as his body was shapeless. The shoulders were not broad. There was no definition in the structure. He also walked with grace and did not take strides. We sat down, table for three. For a few minutes we were quiet waiting for him to break the silence which he eventually did. In a shrill voice he said, “I am not what you think I am. In no mood for introductions, I shall get to the point straightaway. During the Second World War the medical fraternity of the emergency units looked out for injured soldiers in the battlefield. They reached no man’s land and found this.” He took out a black and white photograph. We could make out a wounded person who neither looked like a soldier nor like a human being. 

“Strange...It looks like...” “- right?” adjoined our mysterious companion. “It is in fact a being from outer space, 4 light years away from the milky way galaxy.” We for one moment found it hard to believe him, as expected I suppose. We could not deny that the photograph was real with Ashok being adept at judgement. 
“Yes, it looks unusual, alright. Why are you showing this to us? What has this got to do with the inscription?” The man replied, “You won’t understand the text inscribed anyway. It is in Pali. You probably know that it was widely studied in the past. We Vapas continued to use it as a form of communication even after it became practically dead. You see, we adopted this language when we came to planet earth. We have been here for centuries. We don’t have any gender. I am the only surviving Vapa. This person you see in the photograph was what you humans would identify as my ‘stepfather’. I used to call him my master. The monument belongs to us. We built it out of the tools that we procured on our own. We gave shelter to the Buddhist scholars when they needed our help. They in turn taught us Pali and the ways of your world. We managed to get by with the help of their lessons. Being few in number, we faded away over time. My master was killed in World War 2 and I am the only one remaining.” We were completely struck in amazement and intrigue and we listened motionless. “I have spoken enough. I shall give you the inscription anyhow. With these words I shall take leave gentlemen.” The person handed out the inscription to Ashok and got up. “Wait!” cried Ashok bewildered by what he had heard but this being left saying, “there is no waiting for me.”
We took the photograph and the inscription and left the place without a clue as to what to believe in any more.

‘Another night, how am I going to get through this’ was the thought that preoccupied Ashok. Restless in bed, he turned from one position to another till he stood up and looked at the clock which indicated quarter past twelve. He would have to see the passage of time through yet again. He walked up to the windows and spread out the curtains to one side. He observed the night in all its glory, clueless. You would know this feeling, I am sure.
He shut his eyes gently. All of a sudden someone knocked from outside the window. He opened his eyes to see a young girl calling out to him, “Take me away from this world, sir”. Ashok astounded tried to open the window but the girl vanished before he could do so. He thought he was hallucinating and for all things out of the ordinary he had only one solution. He moved in jerks towards the cupboard, opened it and latched on to a container of valium. He swallowed two pills and went back to bed. Just when he was about to find his sleep, it was 5.00 am. ‘How merciless time is!’ Ashok received a call. “Who is it?”- “Raymond. Ashok is that you?”- “Yes”. –“Sorry to bother you so early in the morning. I just wanted to inform you that my aunt passed away yesterday. There is a funeral today. Do come and oh before I forget bring your friend , Tunap as well.” “Alright, we will come.” Replied Ashok curtly.
I observed all this and inquired as to who called. “It is Raymond. He has called us to attend a funeral.” We were there to observe the proceedings. There was stillness all around us. Everyone in the funeral looked down. There was a loss that filled the open sky. It called out to the heavens as though the clouds were summoned to make way for a lost soul. The stillness of the air precipitated the departure but very quickly the moment was disturbed as the coffin opened up from inside. Aghast we were terrified by what we saw. The dead body struggled its way from horizontality to verticality. I was certain it was our man in the shroud. Before any of us could do anything, he ran away. In utter shock some fainted, some ran away into their cars and drove off the scene. We sought to chase this man but we couldn’t keep pace with him. Ashok knew that he was headed towards the bridge and ran in a different direction to stop him from one end. I managed to trace him to the bridge. As I had calculated I was at one end of the bridge. The man was in the middle of the bridge and Ashok caught up to him from the other end. The man took out a torch. Ashok couldn’t come near for the light was too bright. He just yelled, “Stop, we are not going to hurt you. What were you doing in the place of Raymond’s aunt? Don’t run away. We will believe you.” 

The man in the shroud gradually uncovered his face. What we saw was not a human being but a creature that resembled the one in the photograph. We finally realized that this being helped suspend our disbelief without volition. I could not proceed as the torch emitted light towards me as well. It was almost like focussed sunlight sans pervasiveness. There was some music in the background and an object appeared in the sky resplendent with colours from whatever little I could make out. Like a shooting star this being disappeared leaving us unconscious.

Kentucky Hospital, Ward 301
Raymond and a detective were seen talking to a doctor.
Raymond:  I need to speak to the two men. Are they alright?
Doctor: I am afraid not so. You cannot speak to them as both are suffering from acute amnesia.
Pankaj (the detective): I believe they witnessed something extraordinary. Tunap had sent a message to me while the event was happening. I came to speak to the witnesses regarding that.
Doctor: What exactly did they witness?
Pankaj showed the doctor a black and white photograph.
He said: They spoke to the step son of this person. Does the person in this photograph resemble anyone or anything you have ever seen in this planet, doctor?
Doctor: Where is his step son? What is this all about?
Raymond: Wait...What is this creature?
Pankaj: If the two men do manage to recover doctor, please ask the researcher, Ashok to contact me immediately. I was told by somebody to return this photograph to him. He said he found it in the bridge when the two men fainted in shock. I like what I see. Please do the needful.
Doctor: Who gave this photograph to you?
Pankaj: A lady in a shroud.
The End


Pkayen said...

Good narrative and descriptions, but it is not clear what the Vapas were like. It seemed as though they were a peaceful people, but the end leaves one wondering. The man in the shroud contacted the two friends initially and then seemed to turn indifferent or hostile. His motivation is not clear. It also appears that the Vapas were powerful in some ways yet accepted their fate meekly.

Unknown said...

The man in the shroud was always a touch indifferent even when he contacted the two friends. He wanted to share just about enough information with them and became hostile as he did not want to expose himself personally. His motivation is to get them to believe that he belongs to extraterrestrial species but because he does not fully trust human beings being the last surviving vapa, he does a clumsy job of trying to convince them of his origin in order to get back his monument which is his rightful home. The vapas were not more powerful then human beings. Their biological mechanism was different. That's all. They were wiped out gradually as they were naive and susceptible to persecution on account of being a small number as against the rest of the human beings. They were victims of anthropocentric-ism. Their only friends were some persecuted human beings.

Regarding the appearance of the vapas, this story is actually a case study in a series of unusual cases called 'The Property of Valium'. The first case study is 'A Boy in the Attic'. There are more. It is imperative to note that they are documented by eye witnesses. We only have their word for it. The appearance of the vapas is not described by the narrator Tunap who later becomes amnesic.


Varun said...

It was a really good story... Very different from the boy in the attic... My initial thought was that the man in the shroud was an embodiment of evil and trickery... So the ending was a bit different...

Pkayen said...


Thanks for the explanation.