When Sthir was released from prison, the first thing he learned about the outside was that it hadn’t stopped when he had gone away. His wife had left him. His old position at Delhi Public School had been filled. His mother had died of cancer.
After spending a week in deep shock, there was a knock at his door. It was a representative from the insurance company. His mother’s policy had paid out: Three lakhs, thirty seven thousand, four hundred twelve rupees and fifteen paisa. He wondered why it wasn’t a round figure. “Taxes,” he said to himself. “Fucking taxes”.
Seeking some semblance of normalcy, he applied for every open teaching position he could find and contacted every old acquaintance, but it soon became apparent that his prison record had effectively assassinated his career as well as his social life. Sthir had been convinced that at least his best friend Angad, a writer, would have been unable to resist the allure of Sthir’s prison stories. Wrong again.
A vacation was certainly warranted; only Sthir discovered that visas were hard to come by for an ex-con. “Jobless, friendless and tethered,” he realized.
Sthir conceded that it wasn’t the worst idea to drink himself to death.
Halfway through his second bottle of Grey Goose though, he felt too nauseated to go on. Instead, he grabbed his car keys and headed for the door. It seemed like a manlier way to die, his Esteem wrapped around a tree in a glorious conflagration. He would have done it too, had he not caught sight of a magazine that had been slipped under the crack of his door. It was Men’s Weekly. Something his wife had subscribed to on his behalf. He grabbed the magazine, and told himself he could die after he finished burning this final reminder of her.
His finger’s poised over the stove, his blurred vision coalesced and he read the caption in the corner: “Life after divorce: You’re out of prison!”. A man with nothing to lose is a remarkably open-minded audience. He turned the page and began to read.
“You’re free! So smile.”
Sthir didn’t smile.
“Sounds silly, doesn’t it?”
“I thought so too. ‘The prison of a bad marriage is behind you, but now what?’, ‘Why go on, when it’s all downhill from here?’, ‘She’s gone, so why am I still here?’”
Sthir nodded emphatically.
“Now just ask yourself that last question again, only with a more incredulous inflection. ‘She’s gone…so why are YOU still there?’”
Sthir paused. Then he chuckled. It felt good.
“If you’re still reading, then chances are you’re just like me. Your friends have evaporated, you’ve either quit your job or been fired, and your parents hate you (or they’re dead. My condolences). In other words, you’re not afraid to disappoint, not burdened with providing, absent from all judgment…I’m sorry, what exactly is the problem again?”
Sthir was intrigued. Or maybe he was just completely wasted. But he felt good. Great, in fact. All he needed was a final push.
“So take stock, dear brother, without negativity or self-pity. REALLY ask yourself…what remains, and what can I make of it?”
“Three lakhs, thirty seven thousand, four hundred twelve rupees and fifteen paisa,” thought Sthir. Then he giggled. “And I can make a pretty great fucking month of it.”
And Sthir did precisely that. He splurged, binged and lived without guilt, and found it was an all-new, liberating experience. Suicide became his great plan-B. Rather than falling deeper into drink and depression, Sthir experienced true ecstasy. He ate without concern for cholesterol, tipped generously, purchased endless lottery tickets without feeling like a moron, experimented with high-grade psychedelics, hired hookers without shame and finally flew down to Goa.
Every Friday though, he spent an hour reading the articles of “Tom Peap” in Men’s Weekly. The obvious pseudonym didn’t change the fact that the man was providing Sthir with the best advice he had ever received. Perhaps if he had examined the situation carefully, Sthir would have realized that Tom Peap was simply spouting clichés he desperately wanted to hear, but Sthir was done with examination. No one related to him the way Tom did. If Sthir had car trouble, Tom published a poignant article on engine maintenance. When Sthir got tired of whores, Tom published dating advice. When Sthir got beaten up at the bar, Tom published an uplifting short story titled “The Ultimate Bar-fighter”.
When Sthir’s bank account began to run dry, he didn’t panic, or rediscover his fear of death. The way he saw it, he was living on borrowed time, an unexpected gift from a new friend; one he had never had the pleasure of meeting, one that seemed telepathic in his ability to peek into Sthir’s life and show him the way.
Then something decidedly odd occurred.
Sthir won the lottery.
Sthir had been inspired by Tom’s latest article on the power of positive thought, and the strange forces that reoriented the universe if only one adopted an optimistic view. Sthir went down to the bar, with pep in his step and belief in his heart. He got laid instantly. Feeling like this was the gossamer bow atop the undeserved present Tom had given him, Sthir prepared to die. The next morning, he found his winning numbers printed in the paper.
Sthir didn’t know how to feel about this latest development. On the one hand, he now had enough money for the foreseeable future. But on the other hand, the stroke of fortune had robbed him of the immediacy of his existence. But none of this was odd, as far as Sthir was concerned.
The truly bizarre event (as far as Sthir was concerned) occurred a week later, in the pages of Men’s Weekly:
“Entering the lottery is the act of a man with nothing to lose. The irony is that in victory he finds defeat.” Tom had signed off.
Sthir was deeply disconcerted by this. He stayed indoors that night, smoked some quality hash and drank a fair bit. About three-quarters through the bottle, he laughed it off as a coincidence.
The next morning, Sthir’s ex-wife arrived at his doorstep. She claimed she wanted to give him another chance. Sthir promptly slammed the door in her face. The next week, Tom published a short story titled “Gold-Diggers”. Sthir read and re-read the title three times, and decided he needed to stop smoking marijuana. It was obviously just a coincidence and the THC was making him paranoid. After all, the short story also spoke of old friends showing up when the hero came into some money. He chuckled at his own delusion. Just then the doorbell rang. Sthir didn’t hesitate. He bolted out the back door, and ran until his lungs gave out.
Sthir concluded that a change of environment was just the thing, and took up a suite at the Taj. He didn’t leave his room all week. However when Friday rolled around, he was unable to resist the temptation of ordering a copy of Men’s Weekly. Tom hadn’t published anything that week. Rather than soothe Sthir’s nerves, the absence raised his hackles. He spent another week indoors, but this time Tom wrote a story anyway. It was a dead on, play-by-play, blow-by-blow breakdown of Sthir’s time in school. How he had cheated on his ninth-grade exams, how he lost his virginity to a 36-year-old Russian lady, how his father shit his pants right before he died of a stroke.
Sthir breathed into a paper bag until the paranoia passed. But staying indoors was clearly a monumental failure. If Sthir’s present yielded no stories, Tom was capable of diving into Sthir’s past. It was time for a drastic experiment.
The next week, Sthir went on his most spectacular bender yet. He did things so insane and went to places so obscure that they boggled the imagination and defied reason. His mission was to truly turn his life stranger than fiction. Then he waited for Friday.
Tom published an article named “Apocalypse Holiday: The End-of-the-World Bender”.
Sthir purchased a yacht and sailed to Japan the following morning, and to hell with a visa. He bribed a tuna fisherman to smuggle him into Tokyo Bay. To deal with the stress, he made a spiritual journey across Japan, visiting the Shinto temples and trying to achieve ‘the beginner mind’. To his horror, Men’s Weekly was an international publication, translated into twelve languages including Japanese. He caught sight of it at a newsstand in Kyoto, and snatched it up before he could master his impulses. Sthir cornered a terrified Japanese businessman who told him that Tom had in fact published an article that week. It was an exposé on illegal immigration.
“WHERE ARE YOU?” he roared, standing in the middle of the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Receiving no response, he sailed back to India, and headed straight for the Delhi office of Men’s Weekly.
“Where is he?” he demanded. The receptionist stared at him blankly. He grabbed her by the scruff of her neck, and hoisted her up. “WHERE IS HE?” After a brief but frantic foray down the corridors, he was restrained by security and thrown out on his ear, as he bellowed “HE’S WATCHING ME! HE’S WATCHING ME! I’LL SUE YOU! I’LL KILL YOU!”
When he had stopped hyper-ventilating, Sthir analyzed the situation. Even sober, he was unable to avoid the only possibility that jumped out at him: Someone was watching him, someone that also knew every detail of his childhood. That someone was Tom Peap. The facts yielded only two suspects in his mind: His ex-wife and his ex-best-friend Angad.
He murdered his ex-wife on general principle. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he came upon her as she was copulating furiously with her new lover. Perhaps it was simply the fact that the laws of mankind weigh little in the hearts of the walking dead. He then shot her lover in the temple. The latter died with a look of perplexed horror on his face. As he was leaving, Sthir found himself grinning.
But Tom Peap remained prolific as ever (“Confronting your Ex: The do’s and don’ts”).
There was only one possibility left. Angad was Tom Peap. However, Sthir was unable to take his erstwhile friend’s life without mercy or hesitation. He followed Angad around for a week, as Angad went about his routine, oblivious. Angad sat in café’s most of the day, writing. He only ever ordered a single coffee. Sthir realized Angad was broke. Occasionally, Angad would remain at home all day, jerking off, or smoking cheap weed. A seed of doubt took root in Sthir’s mind. This was Tom Peap? How little did Men’s Weekly pay their writer’s exactly? Sthir hired a private investigator to research Angad’s financial history.
The next periodical was what pushed Sthir off the tenuous cliff he had been clinging to. It neither contained an article relevant to Sthir’s present nor another ‘story’ inspired by Sthir’s past. It was a chilling tale of betrayal, of a man turning on a friend he had seen as a brother. Why? Because the friend he had called his ‘brother’ had sold him out to the press.
Later that night, the investigator reported that Angad hadn’t received a penny for his writing in over a year. Certainly nothing from Men’s Weekly.
Everything clicked into place for Sthir: Angad wasn’t Tom; Angad had sold the details of Sthir’s life to a third party. Sthir felt hard pressed to imagine a more dire betrayal. More importantly…Tom Peap had graduated from the past and present, to predicting Sthir’s future, and by extension, his own doom. Any sanity Sthir had retained fled before this revelation.
Sthir confronted Angad outside Café Coffee Day and shoved his .38 Magnum between Angad’s eyes.
“Who did you sell it to?” Sthir demanded.
Angad was far too shocked to provide a coherent response. “Wha- Sthir what- what the fu-”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Angad babbled, his hands raised, trembling. “Sell what?”
“MY LIFE!” Sthir shrieked.
“Buddy-” Angad began.
Sthir pulled the trigger. Someone inside the café screamed. Sthir ran, tears in his eyes, too confused to think.
His momentum carried him back to the Men’s Weekly headquarters. He went in gun’s blazing, the deafening roar of the pistol like thunder in the low-ceilinged space. He proceeded down the corridors, rife with pandemonium, mowing down security men, clerks, assistants, men and woman, cripples and children, pausing occasionally to load fresh rounds into the chambers of the gun. On the top floor, he finally ran out of bullets, so he pistol-whipped the final security with the butt of the pistol and kicked down the Managing Editor’s door.
In the chaos, no one had thought to inform the Editor about the killer loose in the building. He had his pants around his thick ankles and a graphic interracial porno streaming on his computer. The Editor opened his broad mouth to scream at the sight of the blood on Sthir’s shirt and the Magnum in his hand. Sthir silenced him with a swift smack across the jaw. The Editor went very still.
“I have some questions,” Sthir croaked. “Who is Tom Peap?”
The Editor’s eyes hardened for a moment. Sthir struck him again, and the man began to babble.
“Tom Peap. Tom Peap? Er…ah, well you see, we have a strict policy of non-disclosure here at…” he trailed off at the glint in Sthir’s eyes. “But I suppose exceptions must be made. Er…Tom Peap? Yes, that rings a bell, now that you mention it…His real name is Kunal Bose.”
“Where can I find him?”
The Editor scribbled the address on a slip of paper.
“Last question,” said Sthir. “What has he sent in for publication this week?”
“Er…he hasn’t sent in anything,” replied the Editor. Sthir’s jaw hardened and the Editor wet himself. “I swear!”
Ten minutes later, Sthir exited the Men’s Weekly building, the chit with Tom’s address scribbled on it clutched in his bloody fist; the Editor’s skull had held a spectacular volume of fluid. Sthir marveled at the fact that the police still hadn’t arrived. But that was a subdued, intellectual rumination, somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind. The majority of Sthir was consumed by a simple, inescapable conclusion: Tom was sending Sthir a message. A message only Sthir could decipher.
Sthir felt a divine calm wash over him. This was it. The edge of destiny. The finale of fate.
He arrived in Greater Kailash as the sun was setting, draping the world in twilight. He asked a security guard for directions. The guard complied in a drunken stupor, oblivious to the blood all over Sthir. Sthir arrived at a red brick building with a withering lawn out front. The plaque by the gate indicated that Kunal Bose did in fact occupy the second floor. Sthir enjoyed the climb, the last steps he would ever ascend.
Sthir knocked on the pseudo-oaken doorway. A minute passed, and Sthir wondered if Tom was home. Eventually, there was a shuffle, then a rattle and the door swung open.
Tom wasn’t tall, or well built; there was no hint of the strong jaw, or dashing hair Sthir had anticipated. Tom was fat, balding, pasty skinned and wore broad, thick spectacles. He was clutching a pack of Lays Magic Masala in one hand, and a bottle of cola in the other. Not a man at all, but a ludicrous lump of lard, stuffed into a skin-suit.
This was the hero that had rescued Sthir from premature suicide? The shaman that had guided Sthir to the happiest period of his life? The telepathic magician that had gotten Sthir laid? The soothsayer that saw Sthir’s path more clearly than god himself?
Sthir felt revulsion wrack the pit of his stomach. Before Tom/Kunal had a chance to speak, Sthir barged in, the door clipping Kunal’s shoulder, sending him sprawling.
“You’re Tom Peap?” Sthir cried. “You?”
Kunal/Tom went from being stunned to hyperventilating in the space of a heartbeat, certain he was about to be raped or murdered. Sthir pounded his boot into Kunal’s belly.
“AAAAUUUUWWW,” groaned Kunal.
“Answer me!” roared Sthir. “Are you TOM PEAP!?”
“Yes!” whimpered Kunal.
“LIAR!” shrieked Sthir. “How did you do it? Buy Angad off? Bully my secrets out of him? Or did you get to my whore ex-wife? Spy-cams? Bugs? Were you peeping-” Sthir’s eyes went wide, “TOM PEAP? AS IN PEEPING TOM?”
“It’s just a pseudonym,” mumbled Kunal. He was too terrified to realize that his best course when faced with a maniac was silence.
Sthir kicked him again. “FUCKER! So you have been watching me? Peeping? Watching me—WATCHING ME EAT, AND SHIT, AND SHOWER AND-”
“NO!” cried Kunal. “I swear, it’s just a name, I don’t really-”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP! Now, answer my question. How did you get my secrets? Who told you?”
“Told me—told me what?” whimpered Kunal.
“Told you about—my father, and about the Russian lady, and-”
“Please,” interrupted Kunal. “You have to believe me, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Your stories!” yelled Sthir. “They’re all about me! Where did you get the information? HOW WERE YOU WATCHING ME?”
Sthir crushed several of Kunal’s fingers. Kunal howled.
“Then HOW?” demanded Sthir. “How did you know where I went on vacation? How I sneaked into Japan? Why I killed my friend, before I even did it?”
“You—I–” Kunal’s bowels were coming undone, now that Sthir had admitted he was, in fact, a murderer. “I didn’t know! I’ve never met you! I don’t even know your name!”
Sthir broke all the fingers in Kunal’s other hand.
“AAAARRRRGGGHHH! I swear! I swear on my mother! I wasn’t writing about you!” Kunal had no idea where the words were coming from anymore. “I—I just—I’m a writer, I relate! Empathize! Tap into the public consciousness! I just…get men! I write what my audience wants to read! It’s what I do! It—it must just be a coincidence! Please, don’t kill me! I haven’t…I can’t…I didn’t…”
Sthir felt like someone had battered him over the head with a cartoon-sized mallet. He stared at the pathetic, cowering form before him. There was no deception in Kunal. Sthir knew it, even enraged and psychotic as he was. Then Sthir realized his mistake. It wasn’t Tom that lay before him, after all. It was Kunal Bose. Tom only ever existed in the pages of Men’s Weekly. Kunal was merely a conduit for Tom’s clairvoyant gifts.
Sthir wasn’t there for Kunal. He was there for Tom Peap. After all, Tom had invited him.
He remembered the message Tom had sent him, the message only Sthir could have deciphered: Tom hadn’t sent in an article to Men’s Weekly that week…because Tom was clairvoyant, gazing into the future…for Tom and Sthir, tied together in a dance of fate, there was no future. With no future to foresee, Tom had to die, just as a lame racehorse must be put down. Tom wanted to die. That was the purpose Sthir had to fulfill. And when Tom died, Sthir could leave this world, at peace at last.
Sthir retrieved the biggest blade he could find in Kunal’s kitchen, a wicked chef’s knife about eight inches long with an edge that disappeared, and went to work. He removed Kunal’s fingers, so Tom would never write again. He cut out Kunal’s tongue, so Tom would never speak again. He put out Kunal’s eyes, so that Tom couldn’t use SwiftKey like Stephen Hawking. Then he punctured Kunal’s eardrums, just incase Tom came in earshot of someone with a new mode of communication that Sthir hadn’t considered.
Kunal Bose still lived, but unable to speak, write, hear or see, Tom Peap was as dead as he would ever be. Sthir sighed deep, satisfied. He plunged the knife into his belly and bled out…finally certain no one was watching anymore.
It occurred to Sthir just as he passed the threshold of death’s door that Tom Peap had been the closest thing he had to a friend, in the end. And that maybe he had wanted Tom to be watching…
While Tom had been peeping, Sthir had existed.
While Tom had been watching, Sthir hadn’t been lonely.