“The real world is much smaller than the imaginary”
― Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Chapter 1: Goya
“So, you are having nightmares?”
“Not really, no. I am just having dreams.”
“They are not bad in particular?”
“I mean, bad things happen. But they happen just as bad things happen in real life. That is the trouble, you see, my dreams are extremely lifelike. I cannot tell them apart.”
“So, you see color in your dreams?”
“I do. I see color, I smell, I feel, I hear. As I said, it is just like reality.”
“I see. And what happens in these dreams?”
“Someone tells me stories.”
“Someone tells you stories?”
“So, this someone. Who is it? Do you know her?”
“No ... I don’t know. But I call him the great storyteller.”
“And, umm ... this storyteller, does he speak to you when you are awake?”
“Doctor Perkins, are you asking if I am hearing voices?” Dr Samara Rahman smirks. “I am not. I am not schizophrenic. I am bipolar, but I am on medication and it is under control. I am not schizophrenic!”
Dr Jay Perkins stops tapping on his notepad with his pen. He gets annoyed when patients do this. They try to diagnose themselves. Why come to a professional if you have all the answers already?
But his disgust doesn’t show. His slight frown hides beneath the jungle of his beard and mustache. He quietly sighs.
He knows that her situation is delicate. This patient is unlike any other. Samara is an author and Jay read her books long before she became his patient. She has been on the New York Times bestseller list five times.
However, she stopped writing three years back when Rehan Sadiq had left her. But she has started again recently. She is not writing novels like she did before. She is writing short stories instead. And Jay must admit, they are marvelous.
There is an incongruity, however. The stories do not seem to be written by Samara. They seem to be written by someone else. Moreover, each story seems to be written by a different author. Jay first thought that this was him being overly analytic. But it seems that there may be some solid ground beneath his musing.
As Samara says, the stories are told to her by the great storyteller. No wonder they feel different.
Jay starts speaking after a slight break, “Care for a smoke?”
Samara sits straight. She had not expected his brand-new therapist to know that she smokes when she feels stressed.
“Sure,” she says.
Jay Perkins extends a pack of Marlboro Menthol. Samara takes one out.
“How did you know?”
“How did you know I smoke? And how do you know that I smoke menthol cigarettes?”
“You have been motioning with your left hand fingers in the air as if you were working on an invisible lighter for a while and your fingers on the right hand are positioned as if they are holding a cigarette. You have been doing this ever since you started talking about your dreams. Do you always smoke when you think about this?”
“Yes. But you didn’t answer my question. How did you know I smoke menthol cigarettes?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? All the protagonists in your books consume menthol products. You do not want to promote smoking so you turn them into them something different than a cigarette. Sometimes it is a mojito, sometimes it is a mint lemonade. Ergo, you have an obsession with mint and such products.”
“That’s all conjecture. But yet, amazing,” Samara mutters.
Jay smiles. “It is not amazing, Samara. Most of it is just educated guess.”
Samara smirks. The therapist has just called her by her first name. A surefire attempt at establishing dominance.
“You have made your point, Jay. I will not overstep anymore. Continue.”
Dr Jay Perkins smiles, “Alright. So, let’s summarize your situation. You go to sleep and you have these dreams where a person...”
“Alright, an entity tells you stories, and you write them when you wake up. Right?”
“Okay. So, I fail to see the problem in this. How is this affecting you mentally? You should be happy for this right? You don’t have your writer’s block anymore and someone is supplying you with stories free of charge. What else can you ask for?”
Samara picks up the glass of water from the table in front of her, takes a gulp, then puts the glass down.
“The thing is,” Samara pauses and adjusts her glasses, “I am trapped in this dream onion.”
“A dream onion?” Dr Perkins says, with a smirk in the corner of his mouth.
“Yes. It is like umm ... you wake up from a dream and land into another dream and then comes another and they keep on coming.”
“So, when do you wake up finally?”
“When I crack the final dream. The last layer of the dream onion.”
“Hold on a second. What do you mean, crack a dream?”
“You see,” Samara sighs, “There are two ways of waking up from a dream. The first is to die. It could be a regular death from old age, or an accident, or a suicide. The second method is what I call cracking a dream.”
“Wow. This is elaborate,” Jay mutters.
“However,” Samara continues after a brief sigh, “Cracking a dream can be difficult. You have to, somehow, realize that it is a dream.”
“How do you do that? Do you spin a top and see if it falls?”
Samara smiles. “I am no teenager doctor. I am not stuck in my favorite movie. My dream onion is no Inception. And no one is trying to extract information from me. I have tried the top thing. It falls.”
“Well, Ms Rahman, pardon my intrusion, but ... I fail to see what the problem is in all this. So, you sleep, you experience a dream, a storyteller supplies you with stories and you write them. That would be an ideal situation for any writer. Your sales are soaring, your stories are great and you are becoming a household name. What is the problem? Why are you so shaken by this?”
“Because, doctor,” Samara leans over, “as I said, I am caged in my dreams.”
“Caged? You didn’t say that. Not in that way.”
“I assume that you are not familiar with the Urdu word goya. It is one of those beautiful untranslatable words that we writers love to obsess over. It refers to a story so well-told that it becomes a reality for the listener. So my condition, Dr Perkins, is goya.”
“Can you not snap out of this goya?”
“I cannot get out even if I want to. Not without completing the ordeal. I have to die or I have to realize it’s a dream. Do you know how tough that can be? To live a complete life? To have a family? To have aspirations and goals and to suddenly realize that it was all a night’s dream? How stressful that must be?”
“Yes. But Samara ...” Jay says, pointing at her hands. “Stress does not render thin red lines on your wrist.”
Samara pulls on the cuff of her full sleeved blouse. She has not noticed when her wrist has got exposed. The silver watch she has worn for the purpose of hiding the marks is of no use. She has been caught.
“Let me make a guess, and do correct me if I am wrong,” Jay breaks the silence.
“You have started to question your own reality. You think that this may be a dream too. And in order to wake up, you want to kill yourself.”
Just like the wife of the protagonist in Inception, Jay thinks but does not utter. Samara may be denying that the film is influencing her thoughts, but Jay is sure that it is.
“Listen, Samara.” Jay continues in a jovial (and even triumphant) tone, “You are passing a hard period in your life. Your husband has left you. You live alone. Your parents have passed away. It is natural to feel stranded during this time. Self-doubt, self-loathing is very natural at this time. It is very natural to ...”
“Imagine someone who is not there,” Samara snatches the words away from Jay’s mouth.
“Precisely. It is because you doubt your abilities that you are thinking that it must be someone else that must be giving you story ideas, whereas the inspiration has always been within you. You are stuck within this dream onion of yours because you want to be stuck in it. You have severe depression and you never want to wake up. So, you make yourself trapped in your dreams so that you have more excuse to stay passive and feed your depression.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Samara mutters.
“I think you are at a high risk of relapse and your medication regimen should be adjusted accordingly. I am faxing a new prescription to your pharmacy and I would strongly suggest that you regularly take this medication. Also, you have to come in for therapy once a week. And never miss a date.”
Samara rolls her tongue within her mouth. She has been doing this since childhood to stop herself from saying something that she really shouldn’t say. She is trying her best not to say it. But she fails.
“And what if you are wrong, Jay?” Dr Perkins stops writing and looks at his patient’s deep, dark eyes.
“What if I truly am stuck in a dream prison and it is out of my control? What if I am still living in a dream? And most importantly...”
“What?” asks Jay.
“What if I get lost in one of my dreams, forever?”
Chapter 2: Maya
When Aulindo gets off the red bus that shows Route-70 on top of it, it is already half past eleven. The class, oddly enough, starts in fifteen minutes. What class starts at 11:45? Aulindo often asks himself.
Because the professor says so, he contends.
Today has been another hectic ordeal. Aulindo shares his slum of an apartment with six roommates. He’s had to wake up at 8 am so that he could get to the bathroom ahead of his roommates. He then ran out to catch the bus, without getting a chance to cook or eat his breakfast and he forgot his headphones at home. On the first bus, he overslept and missed his stop. He had to catch a bus in the opposite direction to get to the stop for the second bus. On the second bus, the same thing happened.
This happens. Aulindo keeps falling asleep whenever he is hungry.
The body just shuts down.
He is feeling better now. He’s eaten a slice of bread with some sugar sprinkled on it on his fourth and last bus. He always carries a loaf of bread in his backpack now. And, whenever he gets the chance, he steals packs of sugar from the McDonalds. He is so poor that he cannot even afford a one-dollar sandwich at the shop, but he sure can pretend to be a buying customer and steal some sugar.
The janitors and cooks often notice, but they do not say anything. They are no stranger to desperation.
Aulindo has not always been this desperate.
To be honest, he never experienced a day of insolvency in his formative years. He was born in a pretty well-off family in Bangladesh. His father is a government official, a job that came with perks and power, his mother a homemaker. A pretty stable family. But Aulindo was never a fit in there. He was a rebel. He had to do the exact opposite of what he was told to. For example, if his mom told him not to drink Coca-cola, the first thing he would do after Mom was out of sight would be to buy a drink of cola, even if he was not entirely partial to consuming the drink in the first place. Such was his insolence.
That is why when his father had implored him to follow in his footsteps and study engineering after his graduation from high school, Aulindo chose to apply for foreign universities. He even got in with a full tuition scholarship. However, room and board was on him, a fact that he hid from his parents.
He had to get out of this hellhole no matter what. A little deceit goes a long way when making your parents agree to send you away to a foreign land at the age of seventeen. So he voyaged to a different continent on the other side of the planet where the time was different and the holidays were all kooky.
The only thing that he actually likes in his new life is his philosophy class. This class taught by Dr Charles Verharen, called Representative Thinkers, really tickles his gray matter. He’s never thought that thinking will be so much fun.
“Philosophy is the best thing you would do in your life, including sex,” the professor says. Aulindo wants to agree, but he hasn’t experienced the latter yet. But he is pretty sure that philosophy will still triumph.
He has thought a lot about switching majors from Economics to Philosophy, which will enormously annoy his parents (another reason to undertake the venture), but later chosen to take more time before deciding on what will determine the course of the rest of his life.
But how can he concentrate in class when merely three seats away sat the embodiment of heaven itself?
Aulindo doesn’t know her name.
He doesn’t know how she smells.
He doesn’t know how she shivers in a winter morning.
He doesn’t know if her eyes water when the moon shines over a lake.
He doesn’t know if she knows he exists.
Well, there are a lot of things in the world that are beyond Aulindo’s limited knowledge. But whatever he doesn’t know has a sort of beauty to it. Is death not the most beautiful thing in the human experience? Does it not derive that beauty from its enigma?
So Aulindo stares at her. The woman of his dreams he’s named Hoor. When the professor speaks of eternal recurrence, he gets recurrently lost in the eternal waves of the locks of her hair. When the allegory of the cave is brought up, Aulindo is sunk into the illusion that is Hoor, and he never wants to get out.
He loves Hoor.
Aulindo loves Hoor.
“Listen, boy. What you think to be love is not love. You do not love me, understand?” Hoor walks up to Aulindo one day and pronounces.
Aulindo is dumbstruck. He’s been so preoccupied with watching Hoor’s hair flow as she walks that he doesn’t realize when she’s come up to him and stood right in front.
“I….umm…..how do you know?”
“You keep drawing my portrait in your notebook next to your dumb face and write ‘I love you’ on the bottom of it, idiot. I can see it when I walk out of the class. I do sit right next to you.”
“THREE SEATS AWAY,” Aulindo mutters, as if the distance were greater than the Pacific.
The girl doesn’t pay attention to what Aulindo has just said, albeit imperceptibly. She continues, “You don’t know me. You don’t even know my name. You don’t know my blue. You don’t my pink. And most importantly, you don’t know my black. How can you love someone if you don’t know their black and blue?”
“Like this,” Aulindo stands up and kisses Samara square on the lips.
Not really, no. In reality, his knees get so weak that he finds it even difficult to stand up.
“I never asked for anything in return. What I feel, I feel for me. I don’t ask you to feel it back. What I feel for you, I feel without the expectation of any result. It is all Nishkama,” Aulindo weakly says, harkening back to their Hindu philosophy lecture.
The girl’s beautiful lips purse. Is it a smile? Is it an insult? Is it ... maybe ... a permission?
“Listen, boy. What you are embroiled in is an obsession. An addiction. An illusion. It is no love. At best, it is just Maya. Shobi maya, bujhla?” She says in clear Bangla that drips from her lips like a freshly opened honey box, leaving Aulindo dumbfounded.
So the girl is Bengali. Sheesh ... that explains a lot.
“And ... the name is Samara by the way. Samara Rahman.”
She says while walking away from the stupefied boy.
“And I am Aulindo Devraj,” the boy whispers as the girl of his dreams walks away.
“I know, dumbass,” Samara mutters.
The next day is the last day of class. Aulindo wishes that he can prolong it for another day, another week, another month and if he is really lucky ... another life.
No, even that will not be enough to stare at the back of Samara’s head filled with a dark, flowing Niagra. It will need an eternity.
Aulindo so wishes that he can die and be reborn as a little sparrow so that he can see Samara from afar without her noticing. Without her knowing that what she thinks to be Maya has consumed Aulindo’s entirety.
But all wishes … nay ... most wishes do not come true. The day ends. The clock ticks five and the students must leave. Aulindo lingers on his desk for a few seconds to watch Samara leave. And right before leaving, when she touches the knob of the door, Samara looks back at him and smiles with a meaningful glance.
“Goodbye, dumbass,” her eyes say.
Aulindo just wishes that they said a bit more.
But they do not.
Submerged in all these feelings, Aulindo fails to realize when Dr John Verharen has come up to his seat and sat on the chair next to him.
“Mr Devraj. How are you doing?”
Aulindo suddenly realizes his presence and sits up straight.
“Good, sir. And you?”
“Same ... same. Can you spare a moment for some philosophical musings?”
“Yes, of course, sir.”
“You gotta stop calling me sir, buddy. I ain’t your master and this ain’t a colony.”
Aulindo smiles weakly.
They used to do this a lot, Aulindo and John. They used to walk through the yard talking about the meaning of life. But now that he has found it in the locks of Samara’s hairs, he barely speaks to his professor anymore.
“Let me tell you something, Devraj,” Dr Verharen says with a smiling face.
“Well, actually, let me ask you a few questions.” he says, further building the suspense. And then he jumps into a soliloquy.
“Does an outside world exist? Do others exist? Rene Descartes ably argued that they might not. It might all be an illusion. However, he does contend that he himself does exist. How does he know that? Our senses often deceive us. We experience optical, auditory, visual and other illusions all the time. How do we know our mind is not deceiving us at the present moment and making us think as though we exist when we truly don't? He refutes this idea, however, and comes up with his famous dictum: cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. However, I don't believe in that. Saying ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the same as saying ‘I am milk, therefore I am white’. Being milk and being white are concurrent. One cannot be the cause of the other because one is the property of the other. Thinking requires existence and by definition cannot be the proof of existence.
I do believe that we exist, however. To modify Rene, I would say: ‘I love, therefore I am.’ We exist because we can extrapolate meaning out of this meaningless chaos. That is not only thinking, that is feeling. Existence automatically establishes thinking, but you need something more to feel. You need something resembling a soul.
And you, Aulindo, have a soul.
I am telling you all this because you are badly failing in my class. But that is okay. You do not have to study philosophy, for you are doing philosophy in real life. You have proof that you exist. You are in love. How many among us can claim to be so enlightened? So if you flunk because you love, you will not fail. You will have succeeded in the quest for the meaning of human life.”
Dr Verharen packs as he speaks. After finishing the last sentence, he starts walking toward the door.
Aulindo, meanwhile, silently stares at the floor.
“Professor,” he finally speaks, before the old man walks out of the door.
“Hmm?” he answers.
“What am I supposed to do with this? With this lump in my throat? With this pain in my veins? With this hole in my heart?”
Dr Verharen smiles. Then he utters just two words before walking out.
So Aulindo writes.
He thinks of writing a romantic story, but it is too close to his heart. He cannot bear it.
Instead, he starts writing about writing. Where do stories come from? Aulindo suddenly has an idea that stories may come from dreams.
So he writes about an author who finds her stories in her dreams. But also, she is trapped in them and cannot find a way out. This seems like a good plot. So this is what he pursues.
But what should he name the great author? What should she be called?
She needs a strong, bold name that exudes intelligence, brilliance and beauty at the same time.
What to name her? What to name her?
Aulindo keeps thinking. Then, finally, he finds the answer in a dream, ironically.
Of course. Of course. Of course!
It’s Samara. Samara Rahman.
Chapter 3: Author’s note
I can tell you are very confused right now.
Let me tell you that you are not alone. I am as perplexed as you are, and I am the goddamn writer of this story.
Don’t worry, I am not just another character of this story speaking in the first person. This is really me. The real author in a reality that you and I share.
This is Anupam Debashis Roy.
Now let me tell you why I have intervened the flow of the story. I need to do two things in this note, for the sake of this story. The first is, elucidate the structure, and the second is to entice you into reading it until the end.
Let me start with the second aim. You should read the story until the end because, at the end, you get to meet the great storyteller. And, no, it is not me.
Now the first aim. The structure of this story is, as you have guessed by now, a story within a story within a story.
Aulindo Devraj of the second chapter is writing the story of Samara Rahman of the first chapter. And Jeff Green of the fourth chapter, the last writer of this story who you will shortly meet, would be writing the story of Aulindo Devraj from the second chapter.
So all these three authors are writing stories and some are writing stories about each other. Some of them reside in the universe created by the other and some may even share a universe, who knows! I don’t know yet, to be honest.
Anyway, so my work is done, for now. I may return later if I further complicate the storyline, which I have a feeling I may do.
But until then, happy reading.
Anupam Debashis Roy is the editor and organizer of Muktiforum. His first novel Abbaya and nonfiction book Not All Springs End Winter are coming out in the 2020 boimela.