THE SKELETON LOCK
Among the many amazing people who lived in the strange town of Advutnagar, the most wonderful was the town’s oldest locksmith. I have never seen anyone quite like him.
I was born in this small town, next to which flows the river Ashcharya, in the southeastern corner of Bengal. I lived there as a child right through my teenage years, till I grew up and came to live in Calcutta.
He lived a few houses away from ours, round the corner of the street, in a small entresol room above his shop. I never knew what his real name was; he was distantly related to my grandfather and so we used to call him “Dadu” as well.
He was as old as the hills that ringed Advutnagar on three sides, as they said, and had been an old man for as long as anyone could remember. Ever since I knew him, as a child, he had a mane of silver white hair, a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and sparkling chocolate brown eyes which never seemed to age with the years. His face, bronzed and weather-beaten, always possessed a serenity I have never seen again on anyone else’s features.
As a little boy I would often visit his shop to hear fairy tales from him, as did the other children of the locality—tales of goblins and demons, witches and ghosts, as well as of reckless princes, flying horses and magic carpets. He was a kind man and always had toffees and chocolates for us.
He spent his time manufacturing and repairing all sorts of locks and keys, and he was famous all over the district as a master craftsman. His shop was crammed with a wide variety of mortise locks, padlocks and keys. It was an airy, cozy shop, cheery in the gloomiest of winters and delightfully cool in the hottest of summers. Many an evening I had spent watching him work while he had spun his net of yarns across my years.
I clearly remember the day when I found him busy packing up his belongings and tidying up his shop. I was just stepping into my teens, twelve going on thirteen.
“Are you going somewhere?” I asked, surprised, for I had never seen him take a holiday before.
“Yes,” he smiled at me, and his eyes twinkled. “I’m going away, far far away. This body has become too old for me, I need to replace it this time. You won’t see me after Sunday.”
“What do you mean?” I thought he was joking.
“I mean that like locks, locksmiths, too, get worn out. They also need to be knocked down and reassembled. Sometimes, like our locks, we have to be melted down into metal before we can start working again.”
I looked at him doubtfully. Was this another of the fairy tales he used to tell me when I was younger? Yet this time I felt a vague foreboding clutch at my viscera.
At this point my eyes suddenly fell on a strange kind of lock lying on his worktable. It was unlike any of the locks I had ever seen in his shop. As I looked at it, its very form and shape seemed to shimmer before my eyes.
The lock’s polished body gleamed in the evening sunlight as I picked it up. It looked as if it was—yes, it was made of solid gold!
It looked like an ordinary pin-tumbler padlock, but the keyhole seemed very strange. I picked it up and tried to examine it, but however carefully I looked, the keyhole appeared different every time.
I asked him, “Dadu, what’s this?”
He was cleaning out one of his shelves. He turned to me and then smiled, delighted. “Oh, so you’ve found that one! That’s my masterpiece, the one I’ve been working on for years! And now, at last, it’s complete.”
“Is it really made of gold?”
“Solid gold, 22 carats.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s what is called a skeleton lock.”
“A skeleton lock? What’s that?”
“You know skeleton keys, don’t you?” asked the old man. “Master keys that can open most, if not all, locks. What we do is to file away a large portion of the bit so as to create a passkey.
“Well, this lock is something just the opposite—it can be opened by any key you wish.”
I laughed, skeptically. “You’re kidding!”
“You don’t believe me?” His bright, gentle eyes sparkled. “Here, try to open it with any of these keys.”
He handed me a bunch of keys of all shapes and sizes. Intrigued, I tried to fit a large key into its keyhole. At once the lock changed its shape and form, as did its keyhole, which expanded: and the key in my hand fitted snugly into the orifice. I was startled.
I tried the other keys, one by one, and they all fitted neatly into the keyhole every time. Each time I could see the lock transforming itself to open itself up to the key I held in my hand. Not all of these were passe-partouts, but I could open up the skeleton lock effortlessly with keys of all kinds. It was magic!
Seeing my face, Dadu picked up the lock, chuckling. He caressed it lovingly. “So now you see what this can do! It’s not an ordinary padlock, you know! I have also constructed a mortise lock based on this model. These are very, very special locks.”
“But—but—” a thousand questions were whirling round my head. “But why—but why—why have you crafted this? Why would anyone buy it from you?”
“Buy it? Who’s going to buy it? It’s not for sale, no, no, of course not,” he said, looking at me with wide eyes.
But I was persistent. “Why have a lock that anyone and everyone can open with whichever key they wish? Why have you built this—this—this absolutely absurd thing?! It’s a complete waste of your time and energy!”
“You think so?” he smiled mysteriously. “I have spent years, working late into the night, perfecting its architecture. It’s my magnum opus, and my life’s work is done.”
“But why? If you put it on a door, it can’t keep anybody out, it can’t keep anybody in. It can’t be used to lock a safe or a wardrobe or a vault. Any thief or robber can open it whenever he wishes. It’s weird!” I argued.
“Oh, it’s something totally superfluous, of course, quite redundant for everyday living. Nobody like you or me will ever need it.”
I continued to pester him with my questions. “But why have you made it? What’s its purpose?”
“Does everything have to have a purpose?” he asked, softly, his head bowed.
“Huh?” I was thrown off balance.
“I said, does everything need a purpose to exist? Why do you exist? Why do I exist? Why are there trees and birds and mountains? Why is there a sky up there?
“Why does the strange river Ashcharya flow here? Why does the town of Advutnagar stand on its bank, and nowhere else? Why is my shop on its street?”
“That I don’t know...” I was momentarily nonplussed. But I returned to the attack.
“This lock can’t keep its own secrets to itself! How can it guard anyone else’s?”
“Does every secret need to be kept? Can every secret be guarded forever?”
I stood dumbstruck. Finally, I found my voice. “But what is it? Why is it?”
“Ah, now you are talking!” Naturally, I looked puzzled.
“Well, you’re too young to understand such ideas, but nevertheless I’ll tell you. It exists because it has to exist, it must exist. Someday, perhaps, the world will need more such skeleton locks.”
I couldn’t make head or tail of what he was saying. So I merely asked him, “Dadu, what will you do with it?”
“That I won’t tell you now! But let me ask you something. Is there any lock in the world which cannot be opened?”
“Of course not! All locks have keys.”
“And what if you have lost its key and don’t have a master key?”
I pondered. “Well, you force it open somehow, or pick the lock, I guess, if you really need to open it.”
“Well, you won’t need to force this skeleton lock open. You can open it in any way, with any kind of key you wish.”
He looked straight into my eyes. I still remember his gaze that day—clear, direct, and hypnotic. “Consider, son, what infinite possibilities this lock holds in its heart! Everyone will use a different sort of key to open it, everyone will open up its kingdom of tumblers and levers in his or her own unique way. All passwords in our world would be valid to unlatch its code.”
Suddenly his eyes shifted from my face and focused on a point above my shoulder. I turned around, startled, but there was nobody there. Nobody was behind me, looking over my shoulder—except you, of course.
“This lock, as you can see, has an infinity of possibilities—or impossibilities, if you prefer. Each of you can open it in any way you like. Yes, I’m talking to you, you who are reading this story on the white page or the blank screen—yes, you, the reader of Srinjay’s story. Each of you will read it in a different way, in a different manner—just like a skeleton lock.
“And that’s why Srinjay will write this story twenty years from now.”
THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF SHADOWS
based on the Bengali (Bangla) poem Chhayabaji (“Shadow Magic”) by Sukumar Ray
What? You don’t believe me?! How odd!
Don’t you know that it’s my business to catch shadows? Yes, yes, you heard me right. That’s right, I deal in shadows, all kinds—light, dark, deep, shady, sfumato, chiaroscuro, gossamer, umbral, penumbral. Shadows of the sun, shadows of the moon, shadows of eclipses—there are all kinds in my basket.
Ah yes, about that. You’re asking why I’m aching all over. Last evening I was wrestling with a rather recalcitrant shadow, and that’s why this morning you find me so out of sorts.
Mind you, not every piece of shadow is so intransigent. They are lots of shadows that are mild, gentle, tractable. To catch them, you’ll have to be very cautious. They need careful handling.
Take the shadows of early morning, which appear just before dawn—delicate, moist with dew, refreshing. Or the dry shadows of summer, toasted and roasted in the terrible sun.
You’ll find all these in my basket, and more. When the kites and hawks are circling in the midday sky, casting their angular shadows on the ground, there I am—catching them with my snares, and storing them carefully in the intricate cages I have specially built for them. Crows’ shadows, storks’ shadows, I’ve studied them all, examined their properties and orientations. I’ve even sampled the shadows of the light, fluffy clouds of fall—they’re tasteless, insipid like cotton-wool.
But no one seems to understand all this. No one knows anything about shadows, it seems to me. No one hunts shadows all day long, like I do.
And no wonder! Catching shadows is not an easy task. You people seem to think that the shadows of trees merely loiter on the ground, lying quietly there just like that, peacefully asleep half the time. But is that really so?
If you want to know what shadows are really like, come and sit down here. Listen to what I say. I’ll give you the plain unvarnished truth, you can be sure about that!
When there’s no one around, when nobody’s watching them, the shadows of trees start trembling all over, and look here and there, up and down. Just at that time you have to creep up softly, and wham! put your wicker-basket down on the tree’s shadow, and hold it down. It’ll struggle, of course, but never let go! For, as you know, much better than the trees themselves are their shadows. Whether deep, dark or pitch black, thin or thick, heavy or light, solid or holey.
I can’t think why people seem to set so much store by those medicines made from plants and herbs. Vines, creepers, fruits, roots—their shadows are any time much more effective. Just a few drops, and you’ll forget all your aches and pains, fever and gout.
The bitter shadow of the neem tree, for instance, is ideal for insomnia. Take a spoonful before going to bed and you’ll snore all night long. And if you can snare the shadows cast by papayas on moonlit nights, and sniff them for a few days, you’ll never catch a cold again, common or uncommon.
And that’s not all. There’s this tree, called the amra, which casts a most peculiar, dirty shadow: if any cripple were to bite it and eat it, he’s sure to grow his leg again, no doubt about that!
During the monsoon months, when it rains torrents in Bengal, don’t forget to consume the warmed-up shadows from beneath the tamarind trees for three weeks or so.
So you don’t believe me? Just come to my dispensary and see for yourself—I’ve rows and rows of bottled shadows of all kinds, kept in jars and tins, big and small. Here, take this one, try it. It’s from the mahua tree. I’ve soaked up its sweet shadow with a special piece of blotting paper, and I’ve stored it very carefully. I’ve washed it and cleaned it myself. An absolutely new, home-grown medicine, this—at fourteen annas a bottle, it’s ridiculously cheap!
Sukumar Ray (1887–1923) is widely considered the greatest writer of stories, poems and plays for children in Bengali, more so because he was the pathfinder for Bengali comic and nonsense verse, the Lewis Carroll of Calcutta. The Epistemology of Shadows is a free rendering into English prose of the Bengali (Bangla) poem Chhayabaji (“Shadow Magic”). It was first published in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh in 1916, of which Sukumar Ray was the editor, but first appeared in book form in the poetry collection Abol Tabol (“Weird and Random”) in 1923.
S.Chakravarti says: I am a 41-year-old journalist, writer, researcher and translator based in Salt Lake City, Calcutta, India. I was educated at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta and at universities based in Calcutta and New Delhi.
A former journalist with The Financial Times Group, I have worked on the editorial staff of an international online financial news service. I have also worked on the editorial staff of an Indian daily newspaper.My creative writing, including poetry, short fiction and translations, has appeared in over 100 publications in nearly 30 countries.
My first book of poems Occam’s Razor (Writers Workshop, Calcutta: 1994) received the Salt Literary Award from Salt, the Australian literary and publishing organization headed by writer and academic John Kinsella, in 1995. I have won one of the top prizes in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Competition 2007-08.