Snatches of sentences, picked midway from conversations between strangers at roadside corners or from two riders on passing bikes or in cafes, made up most of the bulk that he returned home with. He didn’t remember now where he had picked up this habit from. He didn’t remember when he had started. But now he devised means so that he could move close to people as they talked to each other. Footpaths on low traffic areas where people took their time moving ahead. Or he took his time moving past roadside benches and parks. Either way, he had become something of an expert in catching stray words, plucked out of context for him to store away as unrelated ingredients, till he chose to put them together. He would give it a beginning and an end. He would put people to the conversations and responses. He would shift the characters and situations around till he drummed up something that was plausible. And then he would wonder if the seed of those words that he had plucked and pollinated in his mind had resulted in something better than how they may have mushroomed into in reality. Or if he had taken away from reality and reduced it to a pale reflection of it, taking away a potentially rich moment in life with the banality of his own making. That he would never know was both a curse and a blessing. And he would accept it as both and return again to hack away at someone else’s body of words and take away a splinter to build his own imagined world with it.
On a day that was no different from most others, he was sipping coffee in his favourite cafe by the bookshop, ignoring the other regulars for their words came loaded with his knowledge of them, leaving him with little freedom to build on. It was a hot day outside and a Sunday so business was thin. He seemed to mind it more than the cafe owner who sat in a corner reading a newspaper and sipping on his cup of tea. A sudden blast of hot air announced the arrival of someone escaping the heat outside, drawing the eyes of all those inside. Only the two — the cafe owner and the word snatcher — looked up hopefully at the newcomer, everyone else shot an accusing glance at the door for letting in the hot air. The man looked at the fresh faces inside, devoid of sweat and the tiredness that those outside were living with, and smiled apologetically as if he was partly responsible for the unusual temperatures at this time of the year. The man was either really that old, or the conditions outside had added a few temporary years to his face. His head was covered under closely cropped hair, greying and thinning, and in way going well with his thinning, stooping body. He was followed by a young girl, her face flushed with the heat and the effort of walking through it. She was wearing very light clothes, and unlike the man, had the easy composure of someone who had been to such places many times and never thought she was out of place for walking in to pass away some time. They both took a few steps ahead, scanning the many empty tables and finally settled on one that was closest to the counter, farthest from the glass windows and directly under the vent of the air-conditioner. The man sat down hesitatingly on a straight-backed chair, and the girl flopped down opposite him on a well-padded sofa with an extra helping of cushions. It would be sometime before they spoke anything, the word snatcher knew from experience. He also knew that the first few words wouldn’t be the ideal seeds that he could pick and carry for his own story to build on. He also knew that the girl would speak first, and she would say things to put the old man at ease and he knew that it had to be around the time when the orders had been placed and the first few sips taken, when he would have to get moving so that he catch just the few words, hopefully not the beginning, but from somewhere in between. He picked his coffee and walked over to the farthest corner from where the two sat, and picked up his book to keep an eye on them. Their orders of cold coffees soon came, and the girl took a big sip and rested her head on the cushion, letting the blast from the air-conditioner sweep over her. The old man still sat stiff, taking small sips and easing up a little with each, but never enough. He looked around him, and saw that everyone was now back in their own world, his intrusion forgotten. They were now one of them. He finally began to relax. He detected a little stirring in the far corner and looked up to see a man behind a book. A cup of coffee — half, empty or full he couldn’t see from here — and a plate of untouched cookies lay in front of him. He thought he saw the man’s eyes meet his, but again he couldn’t be sure from here. The man behind the book now stirred, and gathered his bag, put his book inside and took a sip from his cup as he stood up. The last act had a sense of finality to it that brought the cafe owner over with the bill tucked inside a large blue mug. The man dropped in some notes, and walked past them, and then returned as though he had forgotten something. He looked around the chair where he had been sitting, and then on the floor. The cafe owner walked over, probably to ask him if he had lost something. But before he could see if the man succeeded in finding something, he was drawn back to his table by a voice. The girl’s faint voice reached the word snatcher too, and he shrugged at the cafe owner, as though the thing that he was looking for didn’t really matter, and walked away slowly past the old man and the young girl.
“… see the last of me …”
He didn’t want to hear more. On some days he had to do with the mere mention of a movie name, of with the senseless proclamations of love, or the meaningless talks of drunk men outside a seedy bar sharing their last cigarettes. Those were never enough to go with, but he did. He knew not all days would be lucky. Some days just ended in mundane stories, and he drew some solace knowing that at least what he went home with was a shade better than how the real thing would have turned out. But what he caught today was rich. He now held in his hand a piece of clay that was of the perfect size and consistency that it could be molded into a sculpture worth watching and living with for a few days at least. He walked faster, almost running now, knowing that another word or two might reveal a bit more than he wanted to know, and bind him down to seeing it only one way, and probably reduce it to reality. He liked the unsaid more than the said. That is what took him far. He was now out in the sun, and safe. He walked past the cafe’s glass window now, and couldn’t help but look at the two protagonists inside, and saw the old man lean back a little and run a hand under his eyes. Was he wiping away a tear? Or the last drop of sweat? He had seen too much. Cursing himself for looking that way, he hurried away.
He knew several ways back home. That day he took the longest. One because that particular path was the most shaded, and took him through a park, a narrow alley between two tall buildings and past a yellow painted house where he once had set a story about a little child that had grown up in solitude and had many years later walked past him muttering on his phone, leaving him with the words ‘… was there anybody around when I was growing up… ‘. He liked that house. He had never seen anyone ever enter or leave, but there were often clothes hanging out to dry, and fresh newspapers would be lying around at times, and at other times, were not. The other reason he took the longest path was because he liked having the larger parts of his stories completed before he reached home. It was on his walk that he would pick his supporting characters, borrow from the glimpses he picked up from cars rushing home, people walking their dogs, children being called home from play by their anxious mothers. But at the heart of it all would always be the words he stole. He never allowed other things to take over. Once, when he was working on his lean day with nothing much but a ‘… call me later …’ or a similarly dull sentence, he had stopped to allow a funeral procession to pass by. The sight could have easily given him much more to work with. But he refused the temptation, didn’t allow the good fortune of having stumbled across a scene like this to make him change his narrative. Later, when he was done with his alternate canvas of the girl asking someone to call her later, the corpse in the procession he had seen earlier featured as the person who could never call her now, unknown to the girl who kept waiting.
But today he had a lot more to build on. Today, he knew he would be allowed a peak into an alternate existence that would be worth watching even if he walked through a street bereft of any sights, smells or sounds. And when he did sleep, he did so without disappointing himself. The effect of the story lingered till the early hours of the morning when he woke up feeling fresh. He opened the window to the early summer breeze that was soft and cool for now. He looked back at the girl and the old man and saw them living the lives he had given them, starting many years back to the point where she had walked into a cafe with him one hot summer day, spoke without the other man uttering a single word, had somewhere between said the words ‘… see the last of me …’ and went on to complete the sentence, went on to say a lot more to the man who just took it all in with his head low, and somewhere he wiped a tear and continued to listen till they both got up to leave. Outside, they parted ways. In the lives he gave them, they had walked in together, but they walked out to take different paths. An old man and a young woman. He knew he had given them a difficult life from here on, but still he was happy. He had left the old man, on some other day in the future, sitting alone on the same table, with the same drink in front of him and another in front of the empty chair opposite him where the girl had sat. Often, he would raise his arms to wipe off a tear, as he sat there thinking what part he had played in bringing his daughter to a point where she refused to see him again.
He closed his eyes and played the end in his mind again. He saw the girl and the man. He saw them talking and then leaving. The girl walked away without looking back. The man stood defeated and watching and not moving for a long time and then he finally picked his weary legs one by one and walked away.
In the days to come, the word snatcher went on to other words, other fragments, other parallel lives of his own making. And then one day he went to the same cafe after many days and saw the old man sitting on the same chair where he left him in his story. In all these years he had never run into the world of his own making. Standing on the door of the cafe, not sure if he was ready for this, he took a step back, thinking of leaving, when the old man looked up and once again their eyes met.
“I was waiting for you.”
This is the first he had heard the man speak. That he was calling out to him and was waiting for him wasn’t the first thing that struck him. His first thoughts were of using these words for his day’s story.
“Please. Do you mind giving me some time and sharing a coffee with me?”
He must have walked up to the man without realising, and only now he saw that the other untouched drink was waiting in front of the empty chair. Just the way he had laid it out a few days back.
“I come here almost everyday. Hoping to see you.”
It was only then that he realised that he wasn’t supposed to be in the story. There was no way he could have been recognised from that day. It gave him the courage to talk. It gave him the force he needed to pull himself out of this alternate reality.
“Do I know you?”
The old man sighed. He bent down to take a sip of his coffee, but then looked up without doing so. He looked straight at him and said in a voice stronger than he had used till now.
“You could have ended it differently.”
The word snatcher looked around. Was he in one of his stories? Had he somehow walked through an unseen wall and entered his own mind. He knew the story had lived with him longer than most. Longer than most of the recent ones at least. But he never remembered anything like this.
“What could I have done differently?”
The old man was now looking frail and helpless once again. His voice was almost pleading him now.
“You could have made her stay. You could have brought her back. You could have.”
He had to stop the old man from going any further. He had to say something. And when he did, he knew he had already accepted that he was somehow part of the story.
“How could I know?”
The old man nodded. He had to give him that.
“But now? What stops you now from bringing her back?” He was pleading again. He was watching him as he lowered himself on the cushions the girl had sat in. His throat was parched and he found himself reaching out for the glass of ice-cold coffee in front of him. How was the coffee still cold? How did the man know when he would walk in? He was not looking for answers. He just wanted to bring the girl back if he could, and walk away from it all.
“But how did you know?” He had to know. What if everybody he picked and gave a second life to knew too?
The old man settled back. This was the first time he had seen him settle back. The brink of the chair had been his resting place both times he had seen him here.
“Three years back I returned home from a Gulf country for the last time. I was done with my work there. I had saved enough to live comfortably. My family had always been here, living comfortably on what I sent from there. Now I was going to live with them too. For the first time this was not the two-week long trip I took every year. I was back for good.”
The maker of the parallel universe looked at him closely. Three years back he had been on a flight from the Gulf too. He had gone there as a tourist. And it was always on such flights where he opened up a little. These were people he could pull in and out of his stories and even let them know that they had a role to play. For he knew they were crossing his path briefly. They could take away their versions of him. A half-crazed story teller. An intruder on people’s conversations. It didn’t really matter.
“On that flight you were sitting next to me. And when the young couple in front of us giggled and spoke in whispers, we both looked at each other and smiled. And when you leaned forward as if to hear what they were saying, I pulled you back a little. I remember I did that with a smile. But actually I was a little upset with you wanting to eavesdrop. That is when you told me how you picked up words and spun your own tale around it. Spun a beginning and an end. And you demonstrated how.”
He was back to sitting on the edge of the chair. He was now looking straight at the other, younger man.
“You made it out into a nice little story. I don’t know what words you started with. But it did get you to make most of the story a happy one. Only till the end. The abrupt end. When the girl saw that the man she had married was not the man she had been travelling with. Yes, they were same person. But she had married a regular man. And only when they got down did she realise that the whole honeymoon was an elaborate plan to get him to a country where he had a murder to commit. What would you call it? A thriller? I guess. I had actually liked it a lot. It helped pass the time. But on getting down you rushed out, being a light traveller I guess. I had to wait for my twenty years’ baggage. And the couple was there, still giggling. Still whispering. Waiting for their bags and their new lives to begin. And that’s when the police came and arrested the man. In front of the unsuspecting girl. She cried, she wept, she pleaded his innocence. I followed the case in newspapers and on television. And it came out exactly as you had said. I was convinced you were a detective. On their trail. And it was you who had tipped the authorities. It all made a lot of sense.”
Their coffees were now over. He hadn’t said a word, but strangely his throat was parched and his tongue kept sticking up as if held up with glue.
“And then I saw you here. For a brief moment. And i wondered if you were the same person. Then, when my daughter told me that she had left her boyfriend, telling him that he was seeing the last of her, I was happy. The first time I had felt happy since I lost my wife an year back. Now my daughter would stay with me. For a few more days, perhaps. But still. It was something to hold on to. But in the space of an hour or two, things changed rapidly. She got a call from him. I don’t know what he said, but throughout she kept looking at me with a cold expression. I remember it was a particularly hot day. But that glance still made me shiver. All I could gather after that long call was that I was somehow to blame for their misunderstanding, their separation. It was strange. The way things had spun around. Gone from a sunny sky to a dark cloudy one. Though on that day, it would have been a welcome change. But I have seen enough of life to know that this wasn’t possible. It simply wasn’t natural.”
He now looked at him as if he needed a confirmation from the other man.
“I knew it had to be someone. It had to be you. Is that how you ended it?”
The word snatcher was struggling to say something. He wanted to. There was no shame in owning up. But he just couldn’t. His mouth was sealed shut. His brain was sending the right signals. The right words, even if they were wrong. But his mouth just wouldn’t cooperate.
The other man nodded. He had his answer.
“I don’t know how many lives you have changed. I don’t know if you knew what you were doing. Whether or not, I just hope you changed a few for the better. But you can change one more, if you want.”
He took a final swig of his coffee, left some money on the table and stood up. The other man hadn’t moved at all.
“I had poisoned your coffee. I have been sitting here, ordering two coffees, poisoning one, waiting for the day you would sit there and have it. Ever since my daughter left me. I just wanted to stop you from doing more harm. And I am going to give you one chance to restore a few lives you destroyed.”
The old man was walking already. Why wasn’t anyone stopping him? The word snatcher looked about desperately, but he realised his neck was not listening to his mind either. He sat straight, Probably looking fine from the outside. But the poison was freezing him from inside. Only his brain and his heart ticked.
The man stopped for a bit, look at him, and said: “Let me give you a start to the end of your many, many stories.
Then bending as if to pick up something he had dropped, he whispered in the word snatcher’s ears, “… In the hour or two he had before he died, he…”