” Your anthology of 12 short stories is ready for publication. The first copy will be out tomorrow“, Vijay Kumar, the publisher, mumbled over the phone. I have known Vijay since my college days. He too like me, wanted to pursue writing as a career but fate seemed to have other plans for him. It was his father’s last wish that he took over the running of the publishing house. With this, he was so immersed in work that his dreams of becoming a writer faded into oblivion.
” Twelve! What? Have you gone crazy? Have you been drinking? It was eleven. ELEVEN short stories. And you better get that right!” I thundered, spilling out my exasperation, insecurities, and fear all at one go. I could feel a tremor pass through my entire body. My fingers quivered as they latched onto the mobile. Since I have handed over the manuscripts to the publishing house my head does not seem to be in place. I was feeling anxious all the time.
” Abhijit, it’s twelve”, he stuttered. This time I could not control my anger. If I had spoken to him face to face, I would have punched him in the face. I wanted the book to be out on the stands as soon as possible. I couldn’t wait any longer. And this guy is driving me up the wall.
” Just hold it. I’ll come now and set things right, ” my voice failed to hide traces of my emotions.
As I drove to the publisher’s office, small sweat trickles found their way from my forehead down my cheeks. I could see my knuckles turn white as my hands gripped the steering wheel. I felt a slight twitch in my chest on the left side, and my heart seemed to protest by beating out of rhythm. I tried very hard to keep my emotions under check but my body was hell-bent on revealing my true state of mind.
My dream of being the best writer in town was not far. Once things get sorted out at the dumb wit’s office, my dream will turn into a reality. It had taken my blood, sweat, and tears to get here. I bobbed my head in strong affirmation.” Nothing can ever go wrong,” I muttered to myself.
“You will never be recognized as a proficient writer” I could hear his guffaws loud and clear as I parked my car.
I closed both my ears with my palms. Somehow, I could not avoid the echo of his words from reaching my ears. It’s almost been 6 months since his death but I could hear his voice now and then like an unstoppable alarm.
The office shutters were partially closed. I crouched my back to get in. The lights were all switched off except in Vijay’s cabin. An eerie silence ensued. A slow, creeping dread of the uncanny hit me with the force of a whirlwind. I could hear my heart pound loudly in my chest.
When I noticed the silhouette of Vijay puffing out smoke in circles, I regained composure. Smoothening the creases on my shirt, I boomed, ” What is this, Vijay? It’s almost a month since I submitted the manuscripts of eleven stories and now you say there are twelve. Can I see the manuscript? From where did the twelfth story appear? Are you a publisher or a magician? I want my stories published today itself. No more dilly-dallying. And get that straight”, I hollered, shaking a finger at him.
” Please calm down and take a seat. Let me show you the manuscript. There must have been a slip-up. All the stories are amazing Abhijit. You have done a great job”, he raised both his hands and then slid the manuscript towards me.
” You see for yourself. I’ll be back in a moment “, so saying he walked out of the cabin.
Leaning back on the seat I opened the manuscript, wiping the beads of sweat with the edge of my sleeve. My fingers quivered and my heart was in my mouth as I flipped through stories from 1 to 10, then 11. And 12? From where the hell did this story appear? I had read and re-read all eleven stories before submitting the draft.
“My Story in My Words”, when I read the title of the 12th story my eyes almost popped out of its socket. I could feel my face go hot. I sat up with a sudden jerk. As my hands trembled the manuscript almost slipped out of my grasp.
Holding it firmly I turned the pages to the twelfth story.
I had to blink my eyes twice to be able to read. I had to just read a few lines and understood that it was certainly his writing style. His words, his writing but the story was ours. It started with the friendship saga of two writers. It was a descriptive narrative of the story of one successful writer and the other who was an utter failure. The conversations he had written hit me hard. Especially the line. ‘You will never be recognized as a proficient writer’.
As I read the story, I could see my past move in front of my eyes frame by frame. What took my breath away was the detailed account of the murder of the famed writer. It made the hair on my hands stand on its end. Even amidst the stress and the state of utter shock I was in, I thought that the twelfth story was the best of the lot. It was sure to keep the readers on the edge of their seats. The anthology would surely be another bestseller. This thought crossed my mind for a second and the next minute my mind screamed.
“But how could this be possible?”, I pinched myself. Am I dreaming? Is it the voice in my head that is making me imagine these things?
“You can never be recognized as a proficient writer,” his cackle echoed raucously in the room.
With my breath getting shallower but noisier, I continued reading. It was written with such precision and fluidity with the suspense element intact that despite my fear I had to admit that he was the best writer when he was alive and he had driven home a point even after his death. He still is the best.
I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I had ensured that there was no witness or evidence. It had all happened just like I had planned. I had not slipped up anywhere. Even the police believed the story I narrated. For them, it was an open-and-shut case.
I chose to ignore a sharp, shooting pain emanating from my left shoulder. I sat with my hands on my head.
Just when my dreams were about to see the light of day, suddenly out of nowhere this story had appeared. Was it his ghost that had written the story? Nah! Have I gone nuts? How can I think along those lines? This is ridiculous. There is no such thing as ghosts, it is all in the mind. Is my mind playing games? Or is Vijay playing a dirty trick on me?
Just then I heard something move very close to me. His face, his big, fat face appeared in front of my eyes. Those bloodshot red eyes stared into mine and his loud laughter echoed in the room. “Abhijit, however hard you try and whatever you do, haven’t I told you time and again that you will never be recognized as a proficient writer? When will you stop trying?” His lips curled upwards and his long, pointed white teeth dazzled to the glow of the only tube light burning in the room. I wrapped both my arms around my shoulders and dug my head deep into them.
“AAAAAAAHHHHH!” a loud heart-wrenching scream escaped my lips. My whole body shuddered involuntarily.
The pain that started in my shoulder now reached my chest. I just couldn’t bear the blinding pain.
Clutching my heart I fell off the chair.
Yes! Yes! I had killed him. But it was all his fault. He had ridiculed me. ” You and writing, somehow do not go together ” he had jeered. ” Writers are not made they are born “, ” Why don’t you dip your toe into your family business instead?” Jaydeep Mishra, the famous writer, and my so-called confidante had not missed a single opportunity to deride me. His scornful words rubbed salt on my raw wounds. The wound had got bigger and bigger, deeper and deeper over the years.
His popularity rose with every book that he published. 15 novels of his were best sellers. Whatever he wrote created magic. His books sold like hotcakes. Whereas most of my books refused to see the light of the day. And the books that got published had very few takers.
Slowly a bitterness had stealthily crept into our 10 years of friendship. He was not always like this. In the initial years, we always discussed ideas before we started writing. He would always be there giving me suggestions and tips to improve the story. We spent most of our time together trying to find new subjects for our stories. Within a span of 5years, he had climbed the ladder of success. And from there, he refused to look back. The world had gained a talented writer but I had lost a dear friend.
I didn’t let his success come in the way of my friendship. There were times his bitter words pierced my heart like a double-edged sword but each time I chose to ignore them for the sake of our friendship.
It’s not that I had not given it my best. I had left my engineering degree halfway through to pursue writing much to the chagrin of my parents. I had devoted 8 years of my life to writing. Initially, I had started writing short stories and then graduated to writing novels. All the money I had bequeathed from my father I used for my day-to-day expenses. Over 8 years, I have published 10 books. The money was soon over and with not a single novel of mine making its mark I was heartbroken. I looked up to him for support. But instead of consoling me, he chose to insult me. And, this I couldn’t take. It didn’t take long for the bitterness to slowly turn into anger and then into blind rage.
I spent time mulling and comparing my stories with his.
I realized that my stories were mostly interlaced in layers of emotions and the everyday nitty-gritty of life. Whereas his stories rode high on sensational plots which stirred curiosity in the minds of the readers. One could not put down his book without completing it. His readers were mainly youngsters. The happy readers posted reviews of his book on social media and it caught on like wildfire.
After much deliberation, I decided to follow his style of writing. I did publish a book of short stories based on suspense and crime. But alas! Even that turned to dust.
“Even my style of writing is not working for you, Abhijit? Oh, you poor thing. I feel sorry for you. Why don’t you give yourself a break? In the meantime, read this, Abhijit. It’s my collection of eleven, short stories. It’s going to hit the stands next month. I want you to be there as my readers go gaga over it. You will help me handle my readers and sign autographs on the first page of the book, won’t you? “, handing over the manuscripts to me he cocked his head towards me raising both his eyebrows. This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It provoked me not only to act but to act fast.
Clasping the manuscripts close to my chest, I decided, then and there to keep it.
I excused myself for a few minutes and was back in less than an hour. The building wore a deserted look. There were not many visitors during the afternoon hours.
He was still sitting at his desk ruminating, about the success of his book. The smug smile plastered on his face made my blood boil.
I hid his inhaler when he went to use the washroom. Then I lighted the incense sticks which had a highly concentrated scent. This was sold in the market to drive away pests. About pests, I am not very sure but it would certainly help me get rid of this scumbag. Closing all the windows and the main door I waited for him.
As soon as he entered the room he started coughing and then gasping for breath. Fumbling around draws for his inhaler his eyes darted towards me. I sniggered waving the manuscript in front of his eyes. I waited till he was on all fours, clutching his throat, choking, and coughing violently. I loved watching him in this helpless condition. Within a few minutes, his eyes were all red and rolled up. His head turned to one side and his body went limp. I double-checked to ensure that he was dead by moving my fingers under his nose.
Quickly switching on the exhaust fans in the room I opened out the windows and the main door. I cleared the room of all traces of the incense stick. It took a few minutes for the strong aroma to die down. Then I called for an ambulance.
In the meantime, I made some strong coffee and let the aroma linger in the room.
Now for some drama. I rushed out calling for help.
Though lifeless his eyes somehow seemed fixed on the manuscript in my hand. With a wave of my hand, I dispelled that thought. ‘ Guilty conscience, pricks the mind ‘ I pondered smacking my forehead.
‘ Popular fiction writer Jaydeep Mishra found dead in his apartments after a severe asthmatic attack’, the dailies had read the next day.
His treating doctor had certified that his death was indeed caused by an asthmatic attack.
My vivid narration of the happenings, my helplessness, my tears, and my distraught state did not fail to hit the mark. I told them in between sobs that I had gone in to use the washroom when my dear friend was making coffee for me and by the time, I returned he was gasping for breath. I thought it could be because of the sudden gush of strong perfume through the window.
I lost no time in calling for the ambulance but by the time the ambulance arrived, he was dead. “I am to blame inspector. My friend was absent-minded and would often misplace the inhaler. I should have arranged for a spare inhaler and should have placed it in a specified location in the house. How could I not have thought of this? I can’t think of living without my dear friend. Look inspector, I had come to show him the draft of my stories and before he could even read it, he was gone”, so saying I had fainted.
The officials failed to smell the rat. ” If not at writing maybe I could try my hands at acting ” a smirk played on my face.
I felt a tug at the manuscripts. When I looked up, a dark shadow had encapsulated the entire room. I gasped when the pain in my chest became unbearable. I smacked both my palms on the floor when the blinding pain did not let me breathe.
I heard a loud, sinister laughter that seemed to reverberate against the four walls. It made my hair on my face and arms stand at its end. I knew it was all over.
“These stories will always be mine. I was the best and will always be the best”. I heard his voice one last time. The manuscript fell with a thud on my cold body.
Vijay was shocked out of his wits when he entered the room. Abhijit’s cold body lay sprawled on the floor. He felt the pulse to check if he was alive. Vijay’s body froze for a second. Not that he grieved the death of Abhijit but he wondered how he would explain his sudden death to the police. “Hope I don’t get dragged into all this and I hope this does not ruin the reputation of my publishing house.” Vijay plonked down on the couch thinking.
On noticing the manuscript, he quickly picked it up. At the end of the manuscript, the words ‘written by Abhijit Mukherjee’ were cut and in their place in deep red was written ‘written by Jaydeep Mishra’. Why in God’s name had Abhijit changed the name of the writer?
Vijay had read all the twelve stories in the manuscript and was 100 percent sure that his publishing house would make profits in leaps and bounds if he published the book.
But the sudden turn of events that night made Vijay think. Though Abhijit was his friend he hated the way he bossed over him. Initially, he was not very keen on publishing the book. His publishing house suffered huge losses after publishing Abhijit’s latest novel. When Abhijit had insisted, he had reluctantly accepted the draft. But after reading the stories he had changed his mind.
He took out a pen from his draw and scored out the name Jaydeep Mishra. In its place, he wrote Vijay Kumar in bold. He certainly deserved a book in his name. Even if it means the only bestseller written by him in his lifetime.
At the far end of the room, a dark figure loomed forward.
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