During my travels, and there were seven, I came across interesting beings, said Sinbad, the sailor. But the most intriguing one was the Shrinking Man in one of those strange adventures on sea and land. As the dangers and wonders were many but no deterrent to a seeker of adventures of the Unknown, I cherish each voyage but this one is remembered long and recalled the most during sumptuous feasts like the present to great company like yours.
This is how my father would often start on nights wintry, bitter and cold, in our dismal home, after returning from work late, tired out but smiling at us. He would cook dinner and then keep us engaged by these tales. Warm food and vivid tales told in a natural style of a performer kept us busy and made us forget our pain, misery and distress living in a crowded slum. Father would cook modest meals and serve them hot on tin plates, his broad hands calloused but radiating warmth of a lost mother, face yellow and eyes sunken but full of caring love. Sinbad and his travels excited us the most. Father would tell us many tales but we would frequently ask for the Sinbad and his adventures on long nights of winter, when a wind would scream outside in the empty lanes and dogs whine at falling footfalls in the dark alleys. Father had read these tales and told them with the consummate artistry of a voice-artist, having a correct pitch, tone and taking dramatic pauses. New regions would open up before us, taking us away from our own depressing conditions. An overflowing open drain, the dreadful stench, the accumulated garbage at the back and constant bickering of other families got forgotten during those wonderful moments. Sinbad piloted us through the perilous seas and dangerous lands. Afterwards, we would sleep on the floor covered with blankets dreaming of strange islands in choppy seas inhabited by monsters, the rocks, the apes and the old man of the sea. And a Sinbad triumphing all the monster odds.
We are all Sinbads, declared father.
One night…it was harsh December night and I was crying for mum. Father, desperate and tired, said Sinbad had a strange encounter that was not reported anywhere. It was told by a wandering minstrel from Basra to his great grandfather who worked in the British army. That story was then passed down to him – a kind of family heirloom.
Nobody knows about this minor adventure of Sinbad, the great sailor, except our family and the family of that wandering minstrel, claimed father.
What is that? I asked, wiping my tears with my slim hand.
It is about a man who could reduce to half-a-millimeter. The Shrinking Man, it is called in these oral accounts, informed father.
The Shrinking Man?
Yes. The Shrinking Man.
My brother had also woken up by now and sat up on the floor, wrapped up in a blanket. A dim light burned in the only room of the bare shanty.
Tell us about him, we insisted.
And here is the minor tale told by father to us, not documented or heard by majority so far.
In his voyage, Sinbad meets a man who can fold up like a telescope. This Shrinking Man lived in a small island, alone and aloof, in a cave, away from the beach. The seafarers and sailors who had glimpsed this creature vouched that he was very moody, sullen and silent. Once attacked by a huge bird that mistook this bearded man for some edible thing, he started shrinking fast into himself and his angry shooing and altered form completely startled the predator from the harsh skies and it flew off to the blue vault, leaving the shrunk man rolling down the slope of the hill, like a porcupine. Afterwards, the man assumed his normal height and walked back to his dark solitary cave, ruling over its majestic emptiness like a dethroned duke and looking out at the sea unfurling itself ahead from his perch lofty. It was his kingdom unspoiled. Intruders were rare and never survived.
Strange? We said.
He was a creature of dark and solitude – some sailor marooned who had adopted the privacy as his official emblem. A cast-away who loved his forlorn retreat and the wild winds, as his loud heralds. Even occasional passing ships failed to notice his presence. But folklore suggested the presence of a fierce hairy creature, a man-ape, occasionally spotted in the woods or the white beach by some sailors or friendly tribes nearby. Contact was impossible, so was any retrieve.
Once lucky Sinbad, himself shipwrecked and deserted, chanced upon this creature and hailed him as a fellow being, much pleased by this sight of company on a frightfully-lonely place in the middle of a vast blue expanse but the bearded man, framed by the tall swaying palms and a rocky beach lashed by the hissing sea on a hot humid afternoon, refused any acknowledgment of the latest human presence and treating the marooned man not as his guest but as an alien, an invader, recoiled back and looking sullenly at this new apparition from the sea as a threat, commenced shrinking into him, avoiding any chance of an eye contact or possible speech with the new arrival.
What happened then?
Oh! He just disappeared into him, folding up like a telescope. The man in a shell. And, as was his wont, began rolling down, all hairy and spiked, like a fleeing porcupine from an attacker.
Nothing. He was not to be seen as he had, this bearded man, the monarch of his barren island, in the middle of oceanic vastness, disappeared from Sinbad’s sharp view.
He had become completely shrunk. To a nano-level, I dare say, said father.
Did Sinbad meet him during his stay? I persisted.
Naw. The Shrinking Man just vanished by gaining micro-level existence in the midst of gigantic things surrounding his huge cave on all sides. Later on, rescued, Sinbad was told that the Shrinking Man never contacted the neighbouring tribes cruising in canoes the vast watery surfaces; and upon encountering any human being, would shrink and blow away from that site of potential contact. Explained father to me on that stormy night. The whole scene stood out before my eyes. I felt I was observing this man by being an invisible part of this queer landscape. Father had a grand style of narration – simple, yet elegant, capable of evoking each image vividly, powerfully in the mind of the listener. I could hear the waters lapping up the silent shore of that tiny island bereft of anyone except this ghost.
Then, exhausted by day’s labour, father fell off asleep. I, too, slept – although fitfully. The image of the Shrinking Man got deeply engraved on my young mind and stayed on, although I have moved on in life, forgetting such story sessions with a loving father who created most of these fantastic scenes through his style of narration only.
It, the image terrifying of the drifter, a blend with a dead island, became real and came back again – to haunt me last week, after a gap of thirty years or so.
A man got hit by an over-speeding truck on a morning street, bleeding to death, as strollers stopped for few seconds and then walked away, repulsed by the blood and the gore on that street. I was one of the strollers who bothered not with a life ebbing out in fresh stream of blood in a public place. Media reports told the readers that the lone breadwinner of a large family died due to public apathy. I told my visiting father about the incident over dinner, tone unapologetic, bland, almost news-reader like: precise and cold.
Father, now in his late 70s, looked at me for long and then said, “If it had been me or you?”
I was stunned.
“Remember the tale of Shrinking Man?” He asked, after-dinner.
“Yes. It was a fiction created by a man with writerly imagination,” I said.
“I know.” He said. “What I told you and your brother that stormy night was fiction created by a grieving father but the fiction was true, whatever be the form of telling it.”
“I had searched all the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, the Sailor but found no such person or incident there.” I said, a bit loud. “That story was a lie.”
“All stories are lies. Lies that tell the purest truths about us and times upcoming,” said father. “Such lies are important because our truths get unveiled by them. Truths hidden by realties.”
“I do not know. What I know was that Shrinking Man was your invention and passed off as Sinbad’s imaginary adventures for us to believe at that tender age,” I said. “I believed you then but not now, as a narrator.”
Father – spare and tall – smiled. “I also said, you folks can easily telescope yourselves.”
“Yes. I recall. That was not you but Lewis Carroll.”
“The Man in a Shell.”
“Yes. That was Chekhov.”
“Right. You know now. Not at that time, son.”
“How could I? So young and innocent at that time.”
“I am a good reader. I gave you the best message by combining all these into one common frame.”
“These are the marvellous truths embedded in lies, fictions. You can shrink or expand, telescopically, depending on your own choices or capacities, in a violent world. Live in or out of a shell.” He said smiling.
“Why this tale in the name of Sinbad, the roving famous traveller?”
“Because Sinbad, the very name as a reference, evokes magic, adventure and success. I added my own observations through a fictional piece inspired by this folk tale. I am not a professional author who cares for his name as author. Putting across the message was more urgent for me.”
“What message?” I asked, skeptical, cynical. The stories were stories meant for the bedtime reading or narrating. How truths can remain hidden, embedded in these narratives?
“You will understand, once the right time comes. Tales are, I repeat, messages that are appreciated at right stage and moment,” said he. “It is all about creating islands around, within and staying on those tiny places or, crossing them for a wider world.”
That was not the desired end of the conversation and recall of the tale of the Shrinking Man.
I saw, few days later on, an old man being hit by some goons in a public place. They were molesting a girl and the old man – a retired army soldier – objected. The drunken goons started hitting the old man with belts and sticks at the corner of a busy intersection. He offered resistance but was overpowered. Lot of people stood up on that early summer evening, mute witness to a grim reality show happening spontaneously on an Indian metro street. It was totally live and free. Some were enjoying the real brutality of the scene as if watching the butchering of some hen in a butcher’s shop.
Curious, I joined the crowd and became a mere spectator, like the rest of them. There was no stopping the goons. They went berserk – like a pack of power-drunk cops or a mad despot.
Raw violence. Fresh blood spilling. Expletives fouled up the dank air. Buses, cars, bikes crawled in that narrow city street of New Delhi. The crowd thickened. The frenzy increased. The goons were kicking, punching, beating, belting an ex-army man in his late 60s and the entire neighbourhood was watching silently.
Even I felt a sudden sweet sensation that a 24/7 exposure to raw violence releases in its passive watchers and victims…kind of turn-on by this public spectacle; real fear and fascination with unchallenged rogue power unleashed on innocent harmless civilians. I felt elated, NOT REPULSED by this wanton act of cruelty meted out to a defender of a damsel in distress and a former guard of our porous borders.
At that precise time, dear readers, I turned into – to my own horror – a Shrinking Man, reducing inches by inches till I touched the asphalt of the road, afraid of being trampled underneath other heavy dusty boots… You may believe it or not, that is now up to you.