It was on a hot, dark, musty Friday evening that Mister Aman Fernandes, upon stepping into his music shop on Nariman Road, flicking on the switch, and bathing the room in violet-white light from the newly installed mercury bulbs, found himself facing a man sitting by the phonograph and staring intently at it.
There was no mistaking the biscuit-coloured vest; the white shirt; the balding, oiled hair; the jutting chin; the round face; the long, crooked nose; the bent ears. Aman Fernandes had seen that face and that body a thousand times in his life – in photographs, in videos, in mirrors…
The man looked up as Fernandes entered, and through his tightly set lips, he smiled. It was a smile of recognition; a smile one gave an expected visitor.
The gramophone record started to rotate. After a gush of silence, the voice of Mukesh said in a soul-filled whisper, ‘Mai-ne’. Fernandes considered the intruder. He was slightly older, his face was just a little bit rounder, and there was a visible tardiness about his movements. Yet his face looked like that of a saint – not only was there no trace of worry on it at that moment, there was no trace of worry ever having afflicted it. The lines of age were smooth and graceful. The eyes sparkled.
‘Tere liye hi saath rang ke sapne chune,’ Mukesh went on.
‘I don’t quite know what to call you, Mr Fernandes,’ the man said, waving him to a chair. ‘But do please sit down.’
Fernandes tried to remember back to the time when his parents were alive. Did they ever mention a twin brother? Fernandes had grown up on movies where brothers got separated at birth only to come together as adults and team up (after a tearful reunion) to take revenge on the bad guys who had killed their father. Young Fernandes had wished for a brother – better still, a twin brother – in some far-off land whom he could meet after he had grown up. He had spent most of his childhood waiting for his parents to reveal to him the whereabouts of his brother. But they had said nothing.
And yet, here he was, standing face to face with a physical replica of himself. What other explanation could there be?
‘Kuch has ke…’
‘No, Mr Fernandes,’ the man said. ‘I am not your twin brother. I am not even your brother. I am – you.’
Fernandes gripped the chair to steady himself.
‘Please sit down, Mr Fernandes.’ The man looked up in concern. ‘You really do need to sit down.’
Fernandes dragged the chair out and sat down. As a child he had once been tentatively diagnosed with schizophrenia. There had been an incident when he was nine. The lady in the glasses had peered at him curiously and told his parents that he was borderline schizophrenic. ‘It starts at around this age, Mr Fernandes,’ she had informed his father. ‘If the symptoms persist, please don’t ignore them.’
The symptoms had not persisted. No other incidents had happened all his life after that one. Until now, that is.
‘Kuch ghum ke…’
The man cleared his throat, sniffed and said, ‘You must forgive me if I am not doing this right. This is unexpected for me too. I mean, I knew something was going to happen, but I did not exactly what. So I was not specifically expecting this. You know what I mean?’
Fernandes closed his eyes and shook his head. If he held out his hand and touched the man, he thought, would he feel anything? His hand rose, then arrested itself mid-way. He was hallucinating. Yes. He didn’t have to check. Yes, tomorrow, he would call on that psychiatrist who practices down the road from Parla station. What was her name?
‘You must be wondering many things – whether this is really happening, whether you’re sane…trust me, Mr Fernandes, I am as real as you are. This is as real as anything you’ve experienced in your life. You have my word on that.’
The word of a hallucination. Fernandes opened his eyes and looked squarely at the man. ‘Are you – from the future?’ he asked.
The man smiled. ‘No, Mr Fernandes. Time travel, as far as we can tell, is not possible. When I said I am you, I didn’t mean I am a future version of you, I really did mean that I am you. And you are me. We’re just travelling in opposite directions.’
‘I – don’t understand.’
The man sat back in his chair and entwined his hands over his stomach. Fernandes crinkled his nose at the stubby, spotty fingers. They never looked so bad on him. Sometimes, he thought resignedly, mirrors only showed you what you wanted to see.
At length, the man said, ‘I know you don’t. It’s all right that you don’t.’ He glanced for a second at the phonograph. ‘I wonder how much time we have – I wish I knew.’ Then his eyes slid over to fasten themselves on Fernandes. ‘Think of it this way, Mr Fernandes,’ he said languidly. ‘Think of two trains, on parallel tracks, one going from Borivali to Churchgate, and the other from Churchgate to Borivali. You’re on the first train. I am on the second. We’re not supposed to see each other, I don’t think. We’re not even supposed to know of each other, I am sure.’ His eyes moved hurriedly to the instrument again. ‘But I suspect your music system here…somehow.’
Fernandes looked at the gramophone blankly and back at the man again. ‘But these trains we’re on – where are they going?’
‘Chhoti chhoti baaton ki hai yaadein badi…’
The man said, ‘The train from Churchgate to Borivali travel through space, Mr Fernandes. But the trains we’re on – they travel in opposite directions – in time.’
‘But you just said time-travel was –’
‘Oh yes, time travel is impossible. People getting into a machine, typing in a time on a computer, sitting back and buckling up, waking up in a different time and having adventures – all that is stuff of fancy. Impossible.’
‘But you just said –’
‘Yes, but time itself can travel, Mr Fernandes. Time goes in one direction in my world, and in the opposite direction in yours.’
Fernandes lowered his head and concentrated on the music. What heavenly voice Mukesh had. The song went back to its first stanza.
If he were to jump up and break the gramophone into pieces, he thought, will this man disappear? Fernandes couldn’t bring himself to dislike or despise the intruder (after all, it was not an easy thing to despise oneself), but there was an uncomfortable whiff in the air. The man’s voice and his words were trustworthy, yes, and Fernandes was admittedly curious as to where the discussion was going, but deep down, there was a little flicker of – fear.
Boy, he thought, I really ought to see a doctor.
‘Your future,’ the man said, ‘is my past. And my past is your future.’
‘No,’ Fernandes said, shaking his head.
The man smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, Mr Fernandes. I began my life thirty years ago. I’ve been growing younger and younger with each passing day (though we in our universe think of it as growing old). How old are you?’
‘I am thirty.’
‘Ah,’ the man said, chuckling. ‘So I will live for thirty more years at least. That’s a comforting thought.’
‘Same for me,’ Fernandes said, smiling.
‘I see you’re warming to the idea,’ said the man. ‘We both look about the same biological age, don’t you think?’
‘You’re three or four years older, I’d say.’
‘Ah, yes, so we will meet again in three or four years’ time. Right here in this music shop. I will be in that chair and you will be here.’ The man cocked his head. ‘You know what to tell me, don’t you?’
Fernandes shook his head.
The man laughed and leant back, gazing at the ceiling. ‘You will know when the time comes.’
Fernandes said, ‘It will be the same things you’re telling me now.’
The man looked down at him. ‘You’re – I am – smarter than I thought you would be. Of course, the conversation we’re having right now has to happen exactly the same way in four years’ time. We’re both the same person. We both have to have the same life.’
‘But – I don’t know anything of what you’re telling me. I – it is all so –’
‘Mr Fernandes, I have in my brain right now a large amount of information about causality and retrocausality. I don’t know how it got there – I will by living my life – but I can guess. In the intervening four years, it is not inconceivable that you will have educated yourself in these matters.’
Fernandes nodded. A desire to learn of time and its origins had already begun to take shape in his mind and grip him. Tomorrow, after his visit to the doctor, he would go to the library and check some books out.
‘Roothi hui raaton ko manaya kabhi…’
He looked up at his visitor. ‘But,’ he said, ‘how does it all work? When effects become causes…’
‘You realize,’ the man pointed out, ‘that when you say ‘causes’, you mean ‘causes’ as you understand them – in your world. In mine, what you call ‘causes’ are the effects. And what you call ‘effects’ are the causes.’
‘I – don’t understand.’
‘Let me give you an example. In our world, we’re all born at different stages of life. Some of us are born in old age, some of us are born as young adults, some of us are born as children. And as all of us grow old (‘young’ to you), our bodies shrink further and further in size, and slowly, we lose consciousness. That is what we call ‘death’.’
Fernandes said, ‘That is what we call ‘birth’.’
‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘Our birth is your death, your birth is ours.’
‘But that can’t be it,’ Fernandes said. ‘Everything ought to be in reverse. Everything!’
The man nodded. ‘It is. I’ve only given you an example. The laws of our universe are completely opposite to yours.’ He looked away, thought of something, smiled indulgently and said, ‘We’re mirror-images.’
Fernandes said, ‘Let me ask you something. Are you married?’
‘You don’t wonder why you’re not married?’
‘But Mr Fernandes, whether I get married or not, whether I will have sons or not, is in my future. How can I see the future?’
Fernandes looked at the gramophone record. The song was coming to an end. It was playing the first stanza again.
‘Mai-ne…tere liye hi…’
‘I understand that it’s not easy for you, Mr Fernandes. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. You see, starting from a few years ago, I started acquiring a lot of knowledge on this subject – knowledge that I knew will put to use at some point in the future, but didn’t know when. That time is now, as I now know.’
‘None of it makes any sense,’ Fernandes said, looking up helplessly.
‘It’s not supposed to. It’s a different universe.’
‘…saath rang ke…’
Fernandes said, ‘But why are you here?’
‘Why is not a question we ask a lot in our world, Mr Fernandes. Things happen to us, and we only find out why by living our life. Effects of our world are causes of yours. So the word ‘why’ in our language has a whole different meaning to yours.’ He paused. ‘Do you understand?’
Fernandes began to nod, then stopped and shook his head.
‘You will, on some thought.’
Suddenly, out of the blue, Fernandes sat up in his chair and asked, ‘How am I going to die?’
The man smiled sadly. ‘I was expecting this.’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘So that – I just want to know.’
‘So that you can what, Mr Fernandes? So that you can change it? You cannot. Whatever it is that you want to change about your future, you cannot. Because it has already happened, you see.’
‘Not in my world it hasn’t,’ Fernandes protested.
The man sighed. ‘Mr Fernandes, we’re both the same person. What has happened to me will happen to you. What has happened to you will happen to me. There is no changing anything. Everything that will happen has already happened.’
‘But I still want to know,’ Fernandes said. ‘I want to know!’
‘Fine,’ said the man. ‘You will die thirty years after our next meeting, here in this music shop. You will be gagged, tied and stabbed. Your throat will be slit three times.’
‘Murdered?’ Fernandes said. ‘Murdered! Me? Who would kill me?’
The man shrugged.
Fernandes snapped his hand. ‘I remember…there is a house I bought off a villager, a long time ago. I duped him. I paid him forty rupees and a bundle of tobacco for the whole plot. He had a son – a mere kid at the time…’
The man shrugged again and spread his hands.
‘Sapne, sureeli sapne…’
‘I will seek him out. I will give the land back to him. It must be him. Must be!’
The man smiled.
‘I will close this shop. I will go away to another city. I will – why are you smiling, damn you?’
‘Because in spite of what I’ve told you, Mr Fernandes, you still think you can change something that has already passed.’
‘I – I am going to try!’
The voice from the phonograph stopped, and the last dying sounds of the violin lingered in the air. In a calmer voice, Fernandes asked, ‘You must know what eventually happens to the human race.’
‘It is part of our history, yes.’
‘Do we – do we die?’
‘Exactly four-thousand, three hundred and fifty-eight years ago, the last human being disappeared from Earth.’
Fernandes blinked. The phonograph fell silent, the ivory pin on the record spewing out mindless static. ‘You mean, we, we –’
The man smiled fondly at the instrument. ‘I think we’re out of time, Mr Fernandes.’
‘Will I – will I see you again?’
‘This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen you. Have you seen me before this in yours?’
Fernandes shook his head.
‘Then we’re destined to meet just once again, in four years’ time, with roles reversed, and that, my friend, will be it.’
‘Although,’ Fernandes said, straightening up, ‘when I was nine, I once came in here at night to pick up a record. The gramophone was playing – and I heard someone in the inside room. Someone dropped something, and they called out to me, ‘Who’s there?’’
The man’s face changed. His brows knitted into a frown, then slowly smoothened out. ‘I remember that,’ he said slowly.
‘I – I was scared. I ran away and slammed the door behind me. And I heard him laugh. Laugh out loud – not like an evil, villainous laugh, but a happy one – as though, as though he was enjoying it.’
‘Yes,’ the man said again. ‘I remember that.’
‘They said I was schizophrenic.’ The man smiled, and lovingly reached out to caress the speaker of the gramophone. The record was on its last round, only seconds away from coming to a halt. The man looked at Fernandes and said, ‘Take care of this machine, Mr Fernandes.’ And just as the ivory pin reached the end of the disc and as silence descended on the room, his voice said, ‘Goodbye.’
* * *
Aman Fernandes sat in the darkness on the chair next to the counter and ran his fingers along the edge of the record. Three years had gone by after his meeting with the stranger. He had tracked down the villager whose property he had taken. But the villager had died. His son was not content with taking the land back. He had sued him, and in the ensuing legal battle, anger had bubbled over on both sides. Now there was talk of the villager’s son employing the local mafia…threats to his family were just beginning to come in. Fernandes had surrendered everything, but the boy just wouldn’t listen. Fernandes had taken his family from him, he had said, and he wouldn’t sleep until Fernandes came to the same fate.
Just the week before, after dinner, his wife had walked into his room and had asked for a separation. ‘I cannot let anything happen to the kids,’ she had said. He had said nothing in reply. The house was now empty. All he had was his music shop; and yes, his phonograph.
He had tried playing the record many times in the last three years in the hope that he would return. But he didn’t. He would return only when the time came. He had read enough on the subject now – and he had given it enough thought – to understand that much. There was no changing anything, because everything had already happened. All he could do was to wait.
It was Friday evening. Mumbai had had its first rain of the monsoon that day, even with summer still lingering on, reluctant to leave. Fernandes felt a cold film of sweat under his clothes, making them stick to his body. It was on exactly such a night, wasn’t it, that he had once –
A latch turned on the front door. A switch was thrown. Lights came on. Fernandes looked up at his visitor. After a momentary pause during which the two men stared at one another, Fernandes smiled warmly and set the record in its place. Just as Mukesh’s voice flowed into the air, he waved the man to a chair and said, ‘I don’t quite know what to call you, Mr Fernandes. But do please sit down.’
* * *
He carefully brushed away the dust that had begun to accumulate on his old K.L Saigal collection. It had been a long time indeed since he had heard any of these songs. He looked around his library and sighed. Nowadays nobody came to borrow any of these. The world had moved on to compact discs and digital music. Who had time for an old gramophone any more? Only old fogeys like him still fawned over the ‘originality’ in analogue records, claiming that there was beauty even in the static that instruments produced. Sometimes, he always told people, perfection became boring.
In the outside room, a familiar song was playing on the phonograph. Involuntarily, his lips moved in sync with the words. Yes, Mukesh was really such a heavenly singer. Who among the current crop of singers had his voice? He picked up another disc and examined it closely in the faint light of the mercury bulb. There was a stain on it. He would have to clean it – with some ethyl alcohol perhaps…
He heard a sound in the outside room – first a soft closing of the door, then footsteps. He froze. So it was today. The record dropped from his hands onto the floor and clattered away.
‘Who’s there?’ he called out.
The only answer he got was a sharp intake of breath and a hurry of footsteps, leading away. He ran to the door just in time to see the front door close. From the foggy windows, he saw a small, dark figure disappear into the crowd on the road.
He stopped for a second, wondering what he should do. But there was only one thing he could do.
He threw his head back and roared in laughter.
* * *
LOCAL MUSIC SHOP OWNER MURDERED
Mister Aman Fernandes, owner of Fernandes Music House on Nariman Road in Vile Parle East, was found murdered in his music shop yesterday. Police have confirmed that the body bore stab wounds on the chin, the chest and on the neck. Evidence suggests that Mr Fernandes was tortured before he was killed.
An investigation of the crime scene by Police yielded little in the way of clues. A broken phonograph was said to have been found by the body. Police are surmising that Mr Fernandes may have used it to defend himself.
Police are now examining Mr Fernandes’s cell phone in the hope for more clues.