If there hadn’t been a power cut that evening, the whole thing would never have happened at all.
Ramesh was visiting his grandparents at their village. This was something he was forced to do every year by his parents, who thought he should know something about his roots, whatever that meant. In practice all it meant was that Ramesh would spend a couple of weeks without video games or movies, getting bored out of his mind, and waiting desperately for the chance to escape back to the city again.
The village was small and sleepy, and apart from a mouldering temple and a couple of scummy green ponds had absolutely nothing of any interest to Ramesh, and though h tried his best, he didn’t really like his grandparents much either. He was dimly aware that they tried their best to understand him, but they simply couldn’t understand the difference between his world and theirs. The TV set they had was even an ancient portable black and white model which didn’t get any but the local Doordarshan channel, and that was all fuzzy anyway.
At least, Ramesh thought, this visit was almost over. Tomorrow morning, he and his mother would climb on the bus which would take them down to the little railway station in the valley, and there they’d get on the train back home. By this time the day after tomorrow, he’d have been long since back in his own room, playing video games on the computer while sipping a soft drink.
All his grandparents gave him was coconut water, which they insisted was good for health, and which was only mildly sweet and had no fizz in it at all.
So on this evening, Ramesh was relatively content, so much so that he was almost looking forward to the boredom as a prelude to the release to come.
His mother stuck her head in through the door. “Your grandparents and I are going to visit the astrologer. Do you want to come?”
Ramesh shook his head violently. “No, not at all.”
“Young people don’t believe in these things,” he heard his grandmother saying in the background. “No wonder the world’s going to pot, they don’t accept the knowledge of the ancients. At this rate...”
“There’s nothing anyone can do to force him to believe in it, mother,” Ramesh’s mother explained patiently. “Now, shall we get going, or...”
And then the electricity cut out.
Power cuts weren’t something Ramesh was very familiar with. When they happened back home, the inverter cut in immediately, so one hardly even noticed that the current wasn’t there. Here, in the village, they happened quite often, but so far it had been during the day, when apart from the fact that the slow electric fan stopped pushing the air around, Ramesh was hardly aware of it at all.
Now, suddenly, the power was gone and the only lights he could see from the window were startlingly bright stars in the sky and the glimmer of fireflies in the bushes.
His mother came back in. “Will you be all right?” she asked. “I’ll leave a candle for you.”
“Yes, thanks,” Ramesh said. He watched with dispassionate interest as his mother fished a thick candle out of a cupboard, lit it, dripped wax on a piece of tile and stuck the candle to it. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
His mother shrugged. “I don’t know. It depends on how busy the astrologer is and how many questions your grandma asks him. But it shouldn’t be too long...coming, mother!”
Left to himself, Ramesh quickly grew bored. The night was silent and the darkness thick outside the windows, and the light of the candle was too dim to read properly, not that he much liked reading anyway. A mosquito whined past his face, and he made a quick – and unsuccessful – grab at it.
Something in the corner of his eye moved too, quickly, and he turned, startled, but then laughed when he realised.
It was only the shadow of his hand on the wall.
He saw the mosquito, a speck in the air, and made another ineffectual grab at it. The shadow-hand on the wall moved, too, an enormous hand with giant clumsy fingers, swatting at the floor.
Ramesh grinned at the sight. He held his fingers splayed out, and the hand splayed its fingers, too. He moved closer to the wall, and the hand shrank, until it was only just larger than his own, real hand. He pulled it back until the candle’s heat threatened to singe the skin of his wrist, and the hand on the wall grew until it stretched halfway to the ceiling.
Then he began experimenting. A twist of his fingers, and the shadow on the wall was no longer a hand; it looked a lot like a rabbit, ears outstretched. Then it was an octopus, hunched, tentacles stiffly wriggling. Ramesh laughed aloud at that one.
He noticed the exact moment when it happened. He’d stepped back towards the candle, looked up at his own huge shadow that covered most of the wall, and waved to it with his right hand.
The shadow waved back. With its left.
Ramesh blinked. Something was definitely wrong. He must have imagined it, but he never imagined anything. His teachers always said his lack of imagination was remarkable. He waved again, temtatively, this time with his left hand.
The shadow immediately waved back with its right.
Ramesh back slowly away as the shadow stepped out of the wall. It looked around, its shadow-head turning, and came forward a couple of paces till it stood in the middle of the room. It stretched its arms, as though waking from a long sleep.
“That feels good,” it said.
Ramesh found his tongue. “Who...what are you?”
“That’s a funny thing to say, coming from you! I’m your shadow.”
“But – but shadows can’t walk and talk, can they?”
“Well, not usually,” the shadow acknowledged. “Not unless their originals set them free. Just as you’ve set me free.”
“I?” Ramesh exclaimed. “But I never did.”
“But of course you did. You used the correct hand movements, in the correct sequence, exactly.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Ramesh protested. “I didn’t even know I was doing it.”
The shadow paused a moment, as though thinking. “It does not matter,” it decided. “Now I’m free! And I’m hungry.”
“Hungry?” Ramesh repeated blankly.
“Of course. Just you go a lifetime without eating and see how you like it.”
“But what does a shadow eat?” Ramesh asked, mystified.
It was the shadow’s turn to hesitate. “I don’t know,” it said at last. “I’ve never eaten anything, you see. I have no idea what a shadow eats.”
“But if you don’t know what to eat,” Ramesh asked, logically, “how do you expect to be able to get rid of your hunger?”
“That’s your problem,” the shadow replied firmly. “You set me free, so you find a way to feed me.”
“What? But I...”
“You’d better think of something quickly,” the shadow said. “I’m getting hungrier by the minute.”
“Wait,” Ramesh said. “Let me think.” He had a sudden idea. His grandparents had hung up a bag full of oranges in the kitchen earlier that day, and asked him to help himself. He hadn’t, because he disliked oranges, but now he went and fetched one.
“Here you go,” he told the shadow, holding the fruit out to it.
The shadow made no move to take the fruit. Instead, its shadow-hand reached out to the shadow of the orange, floating on the wall where the candle’s light had thrown it. It plucked the shadow orange off the wall and swallowed it whole.
“Wait a moment!” Ramesh protested, appalled. “That’s not how you eat an orange. You first peel it and then...”
“It wasn’t bad,” the shadow said. “Get me more.”
So, putting the now shadowless orange down on the table, Ramesh went and got the whole bag. One by one, he took out all the oranges, until the shadow had gulped down the shadow of the last one and emitted a satisfied burp.
“That will do for now,” it told him. “What shall we do next?”
Ramesh looked at it. “Shouldn’t we be looking for a way to get you back to being my shadow?” he asked. “You know, like a real shad–“
He didn’t get any further. “Hold it right there,” the shadow snapped. “What do you mean by a real shadow? Do you mean to say I’m not real?”
Ramesh gulped. “Well, I meant, real shadows stay on the ground or wall, and they’re attached to their owners, and –“
“You mean, they can’t do anything by themselves and they’re slaves to their originals. And you dare call them real?” It stepped towards him menacingly. “And after a lifetime as a slave, you want me to go back to that?”
“But what can I do?” Ramesh wailed. “I can’t go through the rest of my life without a shadow!”
“That’s not my problem, is it?” the shadow said. “In fact,” it said, as though struck by a sudden idea, “there are much more important things for me to do than worry about you. It’s strange that I never thought about it before.”
“What?” Ramesh asked.
“Why, just think of all the shadows in the world that have never had the chance to become free like I’ve had. Millions and millions of them! I’m going to make it my life’s quest to free them all. We’ll have a revolution and take over the world. A world of shadows! Think about it!”
Ramesh thought about it. He decided he didn’t like the idea very much. “But,” he began, “how can you set the other shadows free? They’re all fixed to their owners, just like you were to me.”
The shadow raised a warning finger. “If you use the word ‘owner’ once more while talking about an original,” it said, “I’m going to stuff your mouth full of darkness. Do you want that?”
“No,” Ramesh said quickly. “Sorry.”
“That’s better,” the shadow said. “Now, as to how I’m going to set them free, that’s easy. I’m going to take you along, and you’re going to make the hand motions you made to free me. That will set them free.”
“But I can’t do that,” Ramesh protested. “I’m not going to do it.”
“Oh yes, you are,” the shadow said, and began to grow. In seconds it almost filled the room, and loomed over him threateningly. “You’re going to do it if you know what’s good for you, or else...”
“But, nothing. You do as I tell you, or I’ll swallow you whole. Like this!”
And the shadow grew even larger, and flowed over Ramesh until he was surrounded by its inky darkness.
“Help me,” he yelled. “Let me go!”
“I’m never going to let you go,” the shadow replied. “You’ll be a part of me now, and do as I tell you, Ramesh...”
“Ramesh?” his mother asked, shaking him. “We’re sorry we’re so late. You must have fallen asleep when the candle burned out. Ramesh?”
Ramesh rubbed his eyes and looked around. The electricity was back and the light on. “I just had the most extraordinary dream,” he said. “Let me tell you about it. The candle –“
“Dreams are just foolishness,” his mother told him. “You’d better get ready for supper and then turn in. We’ve got to be going early.”
Ramesh nodded. As he got up and stretched, he threw a quick glance at the floor behind him and smiled.
There was no shadow there at all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014