Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Man Who Stole... A Short Story.

It all started with the commotion at the old age home.  I put my drink down and rushed into the adjoining building.

Walking into the main hall, I noticed the inmates gathered around a bed.  I pushed myself through them and saw a man on the bed.  The man looked confused and was looking around at the aged people gathered around him.  Ankita, my daughter, sat beside him on a stool.

"Where am I?" the man said.
"You are at our old age home.  You are fine." Ankita said checking his pupils with a flashlight.
"W... what happened?" the man said.
"I found you unconscious on the road." she said with a momentary look of guilt crossing her face.

Thirty-five years on Earth and she still hadn't learnt to lie convincingly.

I walked out of the room and lit up a cigarette.

Ankita marched out of the room a few minutes later.
"What happened?" I asked her.
"Nothing I can't handle!" she snapped and marched away.

As I threw the cigarette on the ground in frustration, Raghu, the part-time psychologist at the old age home and my childhood friend, came out of the room.
"It was a minor accident.  Luckily the car wasn't traveling very fast when it knocked him down.  Hes fine.  Just some bruises to his head."
"Is he fine to go home? I can take him home." I said.
"Well, thats where it gets a bit interesting.  He doesn't have a home.  He is on the run from some people who are after him."
"What? Like a criminal??" a voice said from behind me.  I turned around to find Ankita standing there.  Trying to look past me.  Ignore me.
"He is.  Kind of.  A small-timer.  He says he had a change of heart and left his associates.  He has been staying in the city for the past week, sleeping at temples and other public places."
"So his old friends are trying to find him?" I said.
"Well, he isn't sure if they are looking for him.  He said he just wanted to start a new life, and he moved away from them."
I took a deep breath, then said,
"Let him spend the night here.  I will talk to him tomorrow."

Ankita nodded and walked towards our house which was the adjoining building to the old age home.  She stayed in a separate room next to mine.

"Guess I should be on my way home." Raghu said.  Raghu comes over to the old age home every day to provide free counseling to the people there.
"How about a drink?" I suggested.  He nodded and we both walked to my house.

Over the drink, I tell Raghu once again how I wish Ankita would just settle down.  Sometimes I feel that she was trying to hurt me.  For not being there for her when she needed me the most.  I ran a business and Saroja, my wife, was a doctor, and we were both financially pretty successful.  We worked for most of the day and had little time to spend with her or together as a family.  Ankita got sent to a boarding school.  And when she would come home, she would get sent to her grandparents' house.

Saroja passed away 7 years ago, and it had been quite tough on me.  Even though we never spent much time with each other, I felt the loss when she passed away.  I sold my business and started the old age home.  It had become my life, and all I wished for was that Ankita had a different life.  I wanted her to get married and have a beautiful happy family.

Ankita was a neurosurgeon at a well known hospital here.  She was too independent.  And rebellious, especially when around me.  Its like she turns into her teenage self when I am present in the vicinity.  I guess deep down it was all the anger and the hurt.

The next day, I had a chat with this man.  He said his name was Oliver.  The first question I asked him was about his past and if people were after him.  He said he was a small timer, and that most of his friends were pretty dumb and he didn't expect them to come searching for him.  All he wanted was to start a new life.

And the stories he told me!  He was probably the most interesting person I had met in a while.

He told me the story of how he and his friend waited outside a house for the owners to leave.  They got word that the owners had a marriage to attend that night.  Once they saw the car leave, they jumped the wall and made their way into the house.  With torches in their hands, they unlocked the rear kitchen door and got in.  They headed to a door which was presumably the bedroom, inside which they were to find the cupboard and the money according to the information they were provided with.  So they opened the door only to find 2 girls on the bed listening to music with earphones on.  Him and his friend quickly pulled up their T-shirts over their face hoping that the girls didn't see their faces, then pulled out a knife and told them to stay quiet.  And, actually, things worked out better than they thought.  The girls were so scared, they told them where the money was.  Taking the money, they made a run for it.

So, even though there were surprises, it turned out to be a good day for them.  And it would have stayed that way if his friend hadn't gone to visit one of the girls a week later.  He had written a letter stating how he found her very attractive and would like to hang out with her.  Then he had gone to the bus stop where she normally took the bus to her college.  Needless to say, when he went to talk to her, she recognized him, started shouting, and the people around thrashed him up.  The cops soon arrived at the spot and picked him up.

Luckily,  the news got to their boss, who informed Oliver to change his location immediately in case the cops came searching for him.

Then there was the story about his friend who couldn't resist humor.  They broke into a house only to find out minutes later that the owners of the house were back.  They both quickly hid in a small room.  The owners were a newly wed couple.  The man seemed quite drunk and kept mindlessly repeating something while the wife was trying to drag him to bed.  They figured out after few minutes that the man was apparently talking about some guy at his company who stole his promotion spot.  Suddenly, Oliver heard his friend giggle.  His accomplice had had a few Vodkas to calms his nerves, and it seemed to be backfiring.  Oliver asked him to shut up, but the more his friend tried to control himself, the more he laughed.  And the more he listened to the ravings of the drunk man, the more he laughed.  And then, the scary thing happened.  The couple suddenly went quiet.  Oliver heard footsteps coming towards the door of the room they were hiding in.  Luckily, there was a window in their room.  He grabbed hold of his uncontrollably laughing idiot friend and jumped out of the window.  Luckily, they were not pursued.

I didn't realize the hours that flew by listening to his stories.  I asked him if he would like to stay here as a caretaker, and he said he would love that.  To tell you the truth, I kind of liked Oliver.

Oliver slowly got used to the people in the old age home.  He slowly developed a routine.  Ankita checked up on him everyday to make sure he didn't have any side effects from the accident.  Oliver slept in one of the extra rooms within the old age home building.

A week later, having a drink with Raghu, I told him about Oliver.  I even told him one of the stories that Oliver had told me.  The incident where he had been sent to steal money off a village temple.  The stealing went smoothly, except, at the very end, some people saw him and started chasing him.  It took him almost 20 minutes to finally lose them.

Next day, he heard people talking about the robbery, and he also heard something interesting.  The people held a goat responsible for the robbery.  They claimed that they chased the robber for nearly an hour and that he finally turned himself into a goat using black magic.  The pursuers said they saw him transform into the goat when he realized there was no way to escape.  They wanted him to be punished, the goat.

Just as I had finished telling Raghu the story and were having a laugh, Oliver himself showed up.  We invited him over for a drink, which he politely refused.

"But I can give you company." he said coming over.
"Of course! May be you can tell us more of your adventures." said Raghu still laughing.

But no sooner had Oliver sat down with us, Ankita drove up with her car.  Grabbing her bag and locking her car, she walked towards the house.  She caught a glimpse of us.  Then she marched towards us and grabbed away Oliver by his arm saying,
"You shouldn't be drinking so soon.  I need to make sure you are completely fine!"
Before we can say anything, both had dissapeared.

"Good thing he doesn't remember that it was her car that hit him." I said a few minutes later to Raghu.
Raghu nodded and took a sip of his drink, then said,
"You know, I got this crazy idea."
"What if Oliver was actually Ankita's boyfriend?  What if she made up this story about the accident and brought him here just so that she can try and make you like him?"
"That would be quite a surprise," I said with an amusing smile, and added, "But he was genuinely hurt.  Didn't you see the cut on his forehead?"
"Well, if they are really committed, its not that hard to make a cut.  I mean, she is a doctor after all."
Of course, it was just a funny story that Raghu came up with, but it did make me question.  What if Ankita fell in love with a guy like Oliver? Will I be happy with such a choice?

As the weeks passed by, Oliver became more used to his environment.  The inmates loved his joyous nature, and they always called him when they needed any help.

Oliver had also started driving for Ankita, which I thought was a good thing.  And it was a bit ironic too, because here she was, being driven around by a guy who she met as a result of her bad driving.  Interesting how things work out.

You can almost feel the love as he helped the inmates of the old age home.  He had told me the story of his last robbery and that more or less explains why he loves to stay here so much.

Him and his partner had broken into the house of an old retired woman living by herself.  They woke her up when they broke in.  She was a very gentle short lady.  She told them there wasn't much money in the house, but showed them to the place where it was kept.  Oliver started having second thoughts about it.  Almost as if reading his mind, she told him it was fine and that her kids have put all the money in the bank for safe keeping, and that they will come over tomorrow and help her out.  Then she asked if they wanted something to eat.  Hesitating, they went with her to the kitchen while she got out some biscuits and prepared tea.  Oliver and his accomplice had sat down and had the biscuits and the tea in complete silence while she looked at them with a warm smile.  Then she asked them if they would like to join her in her prayers.  Minutes later, they both stood awkardly waiting for her to finish her prayers.  Later, she had opened the front door and they had simply walked out of there with the money.

Something strange had happened that day.  Something had awoken inside him.  He decided that he was not going to steal anymore.  But his friend kept telling him how stupid an idea that was.  That they didn't know any other job other than stealing.

While Oliver sat in his room confused about his life, his accomplice had gone back to his chain snatching routines, and one day unfortunately was caught from a street and dragged to town's police station.  He kept struggling and a couple of cops beat him up quite a bit.  Crying, he was thrown between 2 other local small-timers.  Then, one of the cops brought a young lady towards him and said,
"Ok, can you identify the person?"
And Oliver's friend, scared to death, blurted out, "Yes, thats the lady I stole the necklace from.  I'm sorry!  Please dont hit me anymore!"  Its only a few moments later that he realized that the question was posed at the lady who was supposed to identify the person who stole her necklace.  He was thrown into prison.

With his friend out of the way to distract him, Oliver just sat around in his crummy room and wondered about his life for a few days, then decided to skip the town and go somewhere new and start his life over.  And a week later at the new city, he got hit by Ankita's car.

A few days later, I saw something totally unexpected.  Sitting in my room, I heard Ankita's car come in, but heard nothing after that.  No footsteps.  No noise of her talking to someone at the old age home.

I walked out of my room and saw that the car was parked in the garage.  Wondering if something was wrong, I walked over to Ankita's room, and I caught Ankita and Oliver in a compromising position.  In each other's embrace.  It seemed as if they were kissing.

As soon as I walked in, they noticed me, and they both quickly walked out of the room.  I started to pace in the room.  I tried to light a cigarette, but the tremor in my hand made it difficult to do so.  I managed to finally light one, then paced in the room for a few more minutes.

Later, I walked into my room and found her standing by the window.  I sat in my chair and stared down at the floor.
"What you saw there, we weren't just fooling around.  We have been serious for a while now.  We are going to get married." she said.
"Are you even thinking of what you are doing? He could be a criminal for all we know!" I said.
"You don't know him! And besides, I decide what I do with my life and who I spend it with!" she snapped.
I stared right at her.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore." she said and walked out.

I sat in my room deep in thought for a few hours until Raghu finally came in for our usual end-of-the-day drinking session and shook me out of it.  I told him what had happened, and he promised that he will talk to her and encourage her to think more about this.  He told me to wait for a few days and not try to do anything as it might set her off and she might do something rash.

For the next 2 days, I more or less stayed in my room.  I didn't see neither Ankita nor Oliver.  Raghu would come over every evening for our drinking session, and I would tell him for the umpteenth time about Saroja, my wife, and how I regretted everything, and he would patiently listen to me.

The next day, I heard a commotion at the old age home.  I stubbed my cigarette and walked into the old age home.  I saw some of the inmates pulling Oliver's limp body onto a chair.

"He slipped and fell down the stairs." one of the inmates said.

I called a helper and got him into my car and drove to the nearest hospital.  The hospital where Ankita worked.

Upon reaching there, Ankita saw us and rushed to take care of him.  Oliver was awake, but not himself.  He would at times say things that didn't make any sense.  The next day, he suddenly woke up and started shouting.
"Oliver! Calm down, its fine!" said Ankita who ran to him.
He suddenly stopped shouting and stared at her.
"Oliver, are u all right?" she said.
"Who is Oliver? I am not Oliver. I am Arjun!" he said.
"What?" she said.
"Where am I?"
"You are at an hospital.  You are fine."
"Where's my wife? Did you inform her?"
"What? What are you talking about?" Ankita said starting to tear up.
Raghu helped Ankita up and directed me to take her out of the room while he had a chat with Oliver.

We waited outside for a few minutes, and Raghu came out looking worried.
"I think we have a case of schizophrenia here." He said.
"Multiple personalities?" I said.
"Yes. But its tricky.  We don't know if this Arjun is just another personality."
"How can we be sure?" I said.
Raghu thought for a minute, then walked back into the room, and returned after a minute.
"Okay.  I just got him to write down his home address.... Arjun's home address.  If this is just a made up personality, then this address shouldn't exist."
Raghu handed me the slip of paper.  Ankita looked at the paper for a moment, then said, holding back her tears,
"I will get my car."

The address was about 30 minutes away.  Upon reaching the town, we inquired with some people about the address, and it so happens that the address really existed.  Finally, after about another 15 minutes, we finally found the place.

We opened the gate and walked inside, and a very pretty lady walked to the door saying,
"Can I help you with something?"
"We are looking for eh... Arjun." I said.
A look of sadness suddenly eclipsed her face.
"Are you from the institute?" she asked.
I nodded my head, unsure.
"Please come in." she said and once we were inside and sat down, she continued,
"Arjun went missing 3 months ago.  We thought he was on his usual trips where he would go to experience different lifes, but he has never been away this long.  I am worried something bad has happened to him.  But if it is the university books that you are here to take back, they are there in his study room" she said pointing.

We nodded and walked into the study room.  We wanted to be completely sure before we said anything.

The walls of the study room were covered by shelves of books.  And there on a table was a computer with a printer beside it.  And beside the printer was a bunch of printed papers.  I walked over and picked it up and the title read:  Oliver Twist - A Literary Thesis.  There was a huge book propped open right underneath the monitor.  I picked it up and looked at the title:  Oliver Twist.

The wife walked in with some juice on a tray and said,
"He was close to finishing his thesis.  He was restless for a few days before he went missing.  He was saying something about experiencing it firsthand.  He had already spent a week at an orphanage to get a feel of the character, and then when he went missing, initially I thought he was just on one of his experience experiments."

Raghu was now looking at the thesis, and after a minute of contemplation, he asked the lady,
"Does... does Arjun have a history of psychiatric problems?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like becoming a different person altogether suddenly?"
She thought for a while and said,
"Sometimes he used to get obssesed about characters in movies and he would talk like them for months.  Sometimes its with the characters in the books that he reads.  He used to tell me its his way of experiencing how the characters really feel."

Raghu looked at me worried, then looked at Ankita who was now close to tears.

Raghu then went on to tell the wife that Arjun was alive and in a hospital.  The wife called her mother-in-law and they caught an auto and started following us to the hospital.

There was total silence in the car until Raghu broke it with,
"I think the first accident knocked something in his brain and he ended up believing that he was actually the character he was pretending to be.  He became Oliver from Oliver Twist.  The second accident just put everything back into place.  Judging by his reaction, he doesn't remember what happened between the first and the second accident.  Basically, the Oliver that we met simply doesn't exist.  He was just a character that his mind made up."
"How is that even possible?" I said.
"Well, the brain is very complex.  There have been instances of people being in accidents and waking up with amazing gifts.  Savants.  Geniuses with numbers.  Sensing things differently, like sensing smells when they see certain colors.  People who have never touched a paintbrush become super creative and start painting abstract things after a brain injury.  We don't know how to intentionally wire our brain to do these things.  For these people, it just happened by accident.  And, Oliver was just that, an accident."

After a few minutes of silence, Ankita said,
"Can't we bring him back?  I mean... Oliver."
"I guess we can try knocking him out!" Raghu said with a mischievous smile, but then seeing our grim faces, he turned serious saying,
"It is my understanding that he was not a real person.  And even if we could bring him back, wont it be unethical? I mean this man has a wife, family, friends."

The rest of the journey, no one spoke.

Upon reaching the hospital, Raghu took the wife and mother in.  Ankita stayed back with me near the car and looked like she was about to burst into tears.

I pat her on her shoulder trying to console her.  She suddenly turned to me, then looked enraged and said,
"You made all this up! They are all actors, aren't they!??"

I just looked at her.  I didn't know what to say.

"You threatened him? You made him play along!" she said her body tensing up, holding back her tears.

I moved towards her and forced her into a hug.  At first she struggled, but then she broke down in my arms.  I don't remember the last time she had cried in my presence.  The bold rebellious front that she normally had on was momentarily shed.

After a few moments, she wiped her tears and slowly walked towards her room.  I guess she thinks I don't know what it is to lose someone you love.

I stood there lighting up a cigarette.  Raghu came out after a few minutes and quietly stood beside me borrowing the cigarette for a few puffs.

To be frank, I too kind of missed Oliver.  And I am sure everybody at the old age home is going to be devastated to hear about this.  He had become everybody's favorite there.  He was truly a man who stole hearts.

"But all those stories he told you." Raghu said.
"Probably stuff he read as part of his research for the paper." I put in.
Raghu nodded in thought.  He then handed back the cigarette to me saying,
"Its been a long day.  How about that drink?"


- Rejo John


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