Information is power when its distribution is uneven. But controlling its distribution is a stressful job. In Javed Anwer’s ‘The Source,’ two men fill crucial roles for a power centre that sits in a citadel of sorts. There is The Source, who hits the streets for information; and there is The Sorcerer, who directs the play of its selection and selective distribution. Together, they have ‘created and destroyed destinies,’ ‘turned milk into chalk and chalk into cheese,’ and ‘made men and women feel doubt in the face of absolute facts.’ But conscientious flickers can show even among hardened men, and if these flickers are not evenly distributed, they too can become information to be made use of. The molestation (literal, metaphorical) of the media is, of course, crucial for this high-stakes game.
There is an allegorical function here, and some readers might have fun noting parallels between the world of ‘The Source’ and our own, very real world. But those looking for a gripping story, and no more, are sure to be rewarded as much.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Old gods know that it is time that makes the man and his fortune. The Source was a man of his time. In the older days, when he was not The Source, he was a petty clerk. Then the great change came and with it brought fortune for some and doom for many. No one would have thought that The Source, with beady eyes and nose like two slits, parts at odds with his thick brown lips, would end up on the right side. He was always a little shifty, a man of shadows. Such men often found themselves on the right side, irrespective of which side the time turned. Yet, no one believed that The Source had it in him. Not until the day The Sorcerer called him into his office.
When the dusk was settling over the city, The Source entered the corner room on the top floor and looked at The Sorcerer. He was not in his chair. Instead, he was standing at the window looking down on the cupola of the building that housed the new rulers. On its rusted green surface the last light of the sinking sun lay thinly layered. These were difficult times for The Sorcerer, the kind when the old world had ended but the new one was still waiting in shadows. He had lost his old masters and the new ones were yet to reveal their hand. There was a void; many had fallen into it. The Source, who wasn’t yet a source, had seen some of his colleagues vanish. These disappearances had unsettled the balance in the city. Probably this was the reason why The Sorcerer seemed sombre and unsure. When he turned to look at The Source, who had entered the room softly and with reverence, he had worry furrowing his brow.
The Sorcerer crossed the room quickly, covering the thick old Persian rug in well-measured steps. As he eased into his chair, he changed his demeanour to that of a man who was entering into a negotiation, and said, “Come sit.”
He didn’t know that negotiations would be short. The Source had already made up his mind because he understood well that “Yes” was a word that worked best in this room, more so if it was uttered slavishly.
“Come sit,” repeated The Sorcerer.
The Source followed. He took the chair opposite the old man. Between them lay a monolithic old table with its edges bound in old leather. He sat in supplication, a little hunched.
“I need new ears, new eyes and new tongues,” said The Sorcerer.
The words could have meant a thousand things. Old gods know that words contain more than what they let on. The Sorcerer could have meant this or that. But The Source was good at reading between the lines and could see the shadows where none were visible, or hear the words even when no one was speaking. He heard exactly what The Sorcerer meant.
“Thank you, my master!”
With these words, even before The Sorcerer understood that his proposal had been accepted, Source stood up and shuffling his steps quickly, almost slithering, reached for the feet of his master. He held them and laid his head on them.
That was the beginning. In the weeks, months and years that passed since, The Source and The Sorcerer created and destroyed destinies. They made and remade people. They undid the heroes, destroyed the villains, turned milk into chalk and chalk into cheese. They sparked rumours, dished out falsehood. They quelled falsities and nurtured the truth. They made the men and women feel doubt in the face of absolute facts and they created facts where there were none. In essence, they dealt in information that made empires grow or whither.
Many a summers passed. Compared to the older days when the sun seemed like a bright yellow flower hanging from the sky, a flower that nourished all those who looked up to it, the days were now grey with shadows flitting and fleeing. At night when roads fell silent and chatter went down, the alleys and watering holes were filled with men who had been nourished by the new time. One could say that the nights were no longer safe. These were also the hours when The Source went to work. For appearances, and on the advice of The Sorcerer, he still acted as a petty clerk during the day, sitting in his cubicle, in the farthest corner of a dingy and badly lit hall, brewing and brooding the way petty clerks tended to do. But at night, he was a different man. Tonight he was rushing surreptitiously but with a surety in his steps to put final touches to a plan he had started unrolling months ago.
By the time The Source reached the small railway station, the last train had left. However, unlike the gleaning and slick new subway, the decades-old stations that fed the old trains remained open even after their tracks had stopped humming. At night this made them hosts to ghosts, vagabonds, homeless people, and drunks who could no longer find their way back home. The barely lit stations, where the shadow hid more than the light revealed, were perfect for the kind of meeting that The Source was conducting. He entered the station from the northern edge of the platform, which was bathed in the fog. Looking like an apparition in thick air, he walked towards an old wooden bench where his accomplice was waiting for him.
The two men sat a little apart from each other, but close enough to exchange whispers. They sat facing the tracks and talked without moving. Their lips opened and closed.
“All good things must end, all men must fall,” said The Source.
“I do not know about that,” said the other man. “I am a mere pawn in a game that doesn’t look like chess to me. I should not be here.”
The Source sensed that the other man was nervous.
“But you are here now,” he said. “I feel your unease, so I am going to be quick about it. What can you tell me?”
“You are playing a game you do not understand,” said the other man.
“That is your impression. It is just another game. The stakes might be higher this time and the prey someone powerful, but the game is the same.”
The man dipped his hands in a small bag that he held in his lap. The Source heard a rustling of papers.
“Not yet,” said The Source. “First tell me what you know.”
“You are onto something,” said the man. “Years ago, in the days of naivety, people did things that were then considered moral. Even a duty. He too did it.”
“And you have brought the proof,” asked The Source.
“To see but not to record,” said the man.
“That might not be enough for me,” said The Source. “Even in my work, I must have a record. Hearsay can do only so much.”
“No, we agreed that there will be no recording. For your future I cannot barter my present.”
The Source realised that the conversation was taking a wrong turn, the one that would leave him stranded. He sensed not just nervousness but also a hint of disinclination.
“When we exchange information,” said The Source, “everyone benefits. We convert the facts and falsities into the currency with which we earn our keep. You have nothing to fear.”
“I do not see what I get out of it,” said the man. “You are getting for free something that is worth a bungalow in the hills.”
“Free this evening,” says The Source. “There is a price that will have to be paid in future and I will gladly pay it to you.”
As he said this, the two men heard feet shuffling. Their ears perked and they strained into the fog to see who or what made the sound. Soon there was a shadow, first faint and then slowly gaining an outline in the air, moving towards them. When it came close, The Source realised it belonged to a man who was walking lopsidedly, dragging his feet. Just some drunkard, he thought. The man paused in front of them, sniffed and snorted like a pig. Then he shuffled away. The Source and his companion smelled alcohol and piss. They realised that they had been on the bench longer than required.
“Give me the paper,” said The Source. “Let me see.”
The man handed him a single sheet of paper with its edges soft and wrinkled. The Source read it and his spirits rose. He almost felt giddy, but he kept his composure. “Let me record this,” he said.
His companion shook his head and said, “No.”
“A price will be paid,” said The Source.
“You are putting me into a spot, forcing me to choose between the present and the future,” said the man with the paper.
“Life is give and take.”
“You are taking and not giving.”
“You are asking and not demanding,” said The Source.
“Half of it! You can record half of it and it will cost you,” said the man.
“It already has and half would do,” said The Source.
“It can’t be the lower half,” said the man.
“But that is what I want. It is where the meat is,” said The Source.
“I cannot. It has the name and signature. You must give up your demand. The half has to be the upper half,” said the man.
The Source took out his phone and in its light once again read the document. Imagining the possibilities as he swept through the words, he felt his skin tingle. Then he pointed the phone’s camera at the document and clicked. For an instant, the light from the flash illuminated the two statues before the air again turned grey.
The Source pocketed his phone. Without saying another word, he stood up, turned left and melted into the fog. His companion took a moment longer as he folded the paper and smoothed the contents of his bag before turning right and leaving the station.
The Source now walked not just with surety but also with a purpose and delight. Armed with this new piece of information, which he earlier knew but now could also share with the world with undeniable proof, he was imagining a new morning. In his work, he had to rely on people, each one of whom was always, in every instance, an unknown element. For people like him trust was a dangerous word. So he knew, even at this moment when months of his hard work seemed to be nearing fruition, nothing was certain. “But I am going to make it certain,” he spoke softly into the void. He walked on a road that was mostly empty. The air too, thick and grey, was silent except the sound of whooshing cars as they sped through the road.
The Source turned into a dim alley, the other end of which housed the bar where with some luck and right words he was hoping to acquire the final piece of the jigsaw. Around midway there stood a bunch of young boys. They didn’t look like patrons of any pub. The Source glanced at them and pulled up his jacket collars. The boys, however, seemed to have taken an interest in him. They were looking at him with an intent and when he neared them one of the boys, a little lankier and somewhat skinnier than the rest, took a few steps towards him. With a smirk on his face, he hailed him. “Holla old man” he said. “Rushing for a drink are we!”
The Source shrugged off the words and walked into the alley with an assurance. He knew the likes of these boys well. When he was close enough to say his say and not shout it, he took out his left hand from his jacket and wiggled a finger at the bunch. “I am packing,” he said. The boys heard his voice, then eased into their previous stance and relaxed. “Okay daddy,” said the skinny boy with his smirk spread ear to ear. He took a step back, giving way to The Source. Another boy behind him shouted, “we see your pecker daddy!”
The Source climbed the stairs briskly and noticed his man the moment he entered the pub. The bald man chose the right spot, he thought. When he reached the table, The Source folded his spine and let his shoulders fall. He made himself small, joined his hands and said “Namaste.” Then he took his place in front of the bald man and smiled sheepishly. His beady eyes remained steady and watched the bald man carefully.
The bald man was a couple of drinks down and was eager to talk.
“I do your bidding because a man has to dream,” said The Source.
The bald man nodded knowingly and sucked at a chicken bone. “Would you not eat or drink something first,” he asked.
“We cannot eat where the gods do,” said The Source.
This pleased the bald man. He blinked at The Source. “Business it is then,” he said.
“I have everything I need,” said The Source. “Now I need your blessing.”
The man looked up from the plate in which was chewing and smiled. “But you always have my blessing. Surely you must have felt it,” he said.
“Yes, and I am grateful,” said The Source. “But now I need it more than ever.”
“If you understand the risk, I have your back.”
“Do you guarantee that it will not come to bite me,” asked The Source.
“I can guarantee that it will come to bite you if you do not move forward.”
The Source knew it, he could read the reality. He knew it since the day when he entered the building with the green cupola and blurted out what he had observed. Yet, the words of the bald man made him feel bitter. He clamped down, kept his face white. This was not the time to show anything; drunk or not drunk, his companion was wily.
“Then help me on my way,” said The Source.
“Precisely what we are doing here,” said the bald man.
He burrowed into his pockets and took out several papers, some tattered and some fresh that he spread on the table. The Source looked at them like jewellers weigh gemstones with their eyes. “So much power,” he thought, “and all of it in one man’s pockets.”
A waiter approached the table but the bald man flicked him away while he fingered his papers. Then he picked one, somewhat old and yellowing.
“Here you go,” he said. And handed it to The Source.
This was the same piece of paper that The Source had seen at the railway station. Or it was a copy of it but created at the same time, like the way some memos and documents were made — in duplicate and in triplicate.
Now there was no doubt in the mind of The Source. He had to move forward. He had all the proof that he needed to make his final move. On many occasions, he had acted without proof or created his own proof and passed it to his useful fools. But this time he needed the weight of the paper and now he had it. His eyes ran through the document and he again felt the heady rush, and some sadness, at the thought of the coming eventuality. “I will have to record,” he said.
“You can but not the operative part,” said the bald man. “You can record the lower half that has the signature.”
“But the upper half is what I want,” said The Source. “It has the details and dates that I would need to trade.”
The bald man nodded in agreement that the upper half was important. “The upper leads back to me,” he said. “You can’t have it. You will have to manage with the signature. It has the name so what more do you need?”
“I insist, if you want me to do deeds you must let me do them my way,” said The Source.
The bald man flashed him a sharp look. “No, you can not insist. In this work, we do not insist,” he said. “By now a man of your experience and skill surely knows this. We have to work with what we have got. With the lower half you have got enough.”
The Source felt the room tightening. “I apologise for my insolence,” he said. He exhaled, like he was deflating himself and became smaller still. “I would work with what you have given me.”
He repeated the previous routine, took out his phone and flashed the lower half of the paper. Pocketing the phone he took his leave and left the bar with quick steps. Once out he inhaled the cold and fresh air. It filled his lungs and body, and knowing that he now had the full document he felt bigger, more powerful than he ever had in his life. In his pocket he carried a changed destiny, a different morning. Only the final play was needed to be made. He took out his phone and made the call, and then moved like he owned the city.
The Source met the reporter at one of their usual spots: in a cinema hall, carefully chosen to ensure that it was running empty with something no longer popular. Like always, the reporter reached early, some 15 minute after the movie screening began. The Source came 10 minutes after that, walked into the dark with only the light from the giant screen guiding him and took his seat beside the reporter. She turned to look at him and then nodded a silent hello. The cinema hall was largely empty with groups and couples, mostly couples, choosing their seats for privacy, or as much privacy as one could get in a public place. The Source sat silently, with his head tilted towards the reporter. He listened to her breathing and tried to imagine the thrum of her heart, its youthful and assured beats.
After a pause, with his head still tilted, he said softly, “Tonight I will give you something that will make your career. Tomorrow your world will change.”
The Source had first met the young reporter two years ago, barely a week after he got rid of the old reporter. He had liked her and had used her many times in his machinations. But as his ambitions grew and the demands of his work pushed him deeper and deeper into the system, into the parts of the regime where no rules existed and everything was possible, he found that the old reporter could not keep up with him. He needed a new ally. Then there was the matter of the man whom he wanted hanged. The hanging would bring him a lot of leverage and prestige but to make it happen he needed the old reporter to put out the word. The old reporter refused, believing that the man whom The Source wanted hanged and disgraced for plotting against the regime, was falsely accused. He had to get rid of the old reporter. So he made the call and shared some photographs. A week later, he met the new reporter and liked her immediately. She was ambitious and hard working, and she had none of the qualms about black and white and grey that old folks harboured. She was born in a different world and her sense and sensibilities were tuned to the demands of the new time. When he made inquiries about her, he found that not only the young reporter was driven and ambitious, she had also risen quickly in her career, a quality that The Source prized in people because it always meant he was dealing with someone who would get the job done irrespective of the cost.
“And what will it cost me,” asked the reporter.
“Nothing of course. Has it ever cost you anything, my dear?”
“Everything has a cost. Of all people, you know it the best,” said the girl.
“You are wise beyond your years,” he said.
The Source then took out his phone and brought to its screen the photo he had just clicked. He offered it to the reporter. She read it quickly and The Source sensed a change in her breathing. The photo had excited her.
“But it is half, this won’t stand,” she said. “I can’t sell it.”
“Of course, you can my dear,” said The Source. “But do not worry. Swipe and you will find the rest.”
She read the text in the images The Source had clicked earlier and grew silent for a while. The Source let her soak it in. He knew the information was overwhelming for a young reporter like her. But he also understood that with ambition coiling inside her, she wouldn’t refuse him. She wasn’t like the old reporter.
For a few minutes the old man and the young girl both sat staring at the giant cinema screen. On it was a fallen star trying a pathetic routine at comedy. Once upon a time he was the biggest draw in the country. But when the new regime came, the rulers plotted his downfall as a warning to the rest of the tinseltown. For over a month The Source worked night after night to bring ruin to this man.
The reporter handed the phone back to The Source. “This story is too big for me. It will devour me, I cannot do it,” she said.
“Not you, my dear. It will devour only one person,” said The Source. “You are not that person.”
The girl needed a gentle push. In the old days, the reporters cultivated their sources. In this new time, the balance had shifted. Though, often but not always, men and women like The Source had to be careful in projecting their newly-acquired power. They had to be subtle about their demands, had to keep the subterfuge and humour the egos.
“Every man and woman in our country has a higher purpose,” said The Source. “We live not for ourselves but for our country…”
“You cannot question my loyalty…” said the reporter.
“I do not. Let me complete my dear,” said The Source. He shifted his stance and turned his entire body towards the reporter. “In the old days, to be a patriot meant throwing away your life for pennies. But in our new time, we reward people who love the country. You know it well. You have been a patriot and you have been greater than yourself. This has changed your career and life.”
“I am a patriot but this…”
“I agree this may seem too big to you, even unnecessary. But it is not,” continued The Source, his voice soft but steady. “Do realise my dear, you do not see the big picture because it is not shown to you. You are not yet ready for it. But I have seen it and it is glorious. And if it is glorious for our country, it will be glorious for you. Your career will be made. We do everything for young people like you, we are building the nation for you.”
The girl had doubts. She knew that she was attaching herself to something that would forever colour her life. It was risky. But it was also thrilling to be part of a momentous moment. There was no doubt the story was big, probably the most sensational in recent years. And then there was her duty. “What if there is truth in what The Source is saying,” she thought. After all she had just seen the proof. She was silent for a few minutes, they both were.
Then she said, “What is in it for me?”
“Everything my dear,” said The Source. He knew this was the moment. To firm up her resolve, he laid his hand on the knee of the reporter and lightly pressed. The girl stiffened but understood that the touch was not perverse.
“So you will do,” asked The Source.
“You will have to stand by me if it is required,” she said.
“Haven’t I always,” said The Source. “Do not worry, we are friends.”
The two brought their phones close and bumped them. The files moved. The upper half and lower half were copied from one phone to another.
“Massage it well and make it sing,” said The Source.
“I always do,” said the reporter.
“You are doing a service to the nation.”
“It feels like a betrayal nonetheless.”
“We have to do what we have to do, my dear.”
It was time to leave. But just as he was about to take his hand off the girl’s knee, where his fingers lay friendly and benevolent, a desire rose in him. He had never earlier pictured this reporter with the kind of thoughts that now fogged his mind. But those were different nights. Tonight he felt more powerful. Earlier he would push away such desires, but in this moment as he sat with the reporter, with his hand near her lap, he wanted to indulge them. It was now his world and he could do whatever he wanted. Suddenly, he was not just content to use the reporter, he also felt like possessing her. His hand gripped the girl’s knee. She sensed the change, her body knotted itself and she pressed her knees together. The Source tilted his head towards her and sought her cheek and lips. Down below his hand moved up, inside the shirt she was wearing, pushing upwards into her clothes. The reporter sharply drew her face away, denied him the kiss he sought. But she let his hand feel her body. He cupped the warm and soft mound and his fingers heard tremors from her heart, now beating faster. He felt as if her young body was pumping vitality in his old hand. He caressed her gently, almost lovingly. When his fingers felt her nipple grow and harden, he closed his eyes and imagined its shape. Time itself paused for him, just for a second or two because the next moment with a jerk the girl was on her feet.
“Not cool,” she said. “Not cool.”
Then she turned and left with swift steps. The Source heard a whistle from two rows above him and realised that it wasn’t aimed at the antics of the hero on the cinema screen. They were directed at him. He waited for some five minutes before gingerly making his way out through the dark rows and walked into the deep night.
A few hours later at home when The Source went through the events of the night, he no longer felt as invincible as he had when he exited the station or when he left the pub. He realised he had made a mistake. He shouldn’t have impressed his desires upon the reporter. That minute had the potential to unravel the plan he worked on for months. “She is not stupid,” he thought. “She wouldn’t contact The Sorcerer. Not now.” But she might delay his plan, she might decide to not act on the information he had just given her. Then there was the matter of the future. The Source knew well that even if that minute in the cinema hall did not interrupt the current events he had set in motion, from this night onwards it would give the reporter leverage on him. He had acquired a debt and in his work it was undesirable.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” he thought as he lay on his bed. But what was one morally repugnant act when his life was full of all things foul. He had made people vanish, he had cooked up information that led to murders. He had destroyed families and lives, of kids too, as men and women entered jail and never came out, all because he had let slip some information, true or false, into this ear or that. What was this act in comparison to the abomination he had concocted now? If the reporter played her part, The Sorcerer would be dead tomorrow. Yes, he thought, silly as it was, what his hand did was a mere trifle. He was swallowing his mentor and what could have been more despicable than that.
“But I did not have a choice,” The Source thought. Spread on his bed, he was sleepless, almost feverish from the buzz in his mind. He felt as if his mind had turned to mush and his scalp was tingling. He got up and poured a drink. Then he sat in his balcony, surrounded by the fog, sipping the liquid gold. His thoughts raced.
“I did not have a choice,” he thought. “The old man had me cornered.”
“Goddam apologist,” he muttered in the void of the night. “It was all going well, you old fool.”
Most men and women, when they grow old, tend to reacquire the mantle of morals that they had earlier discarded somewhere in the beginning of their adulthood. The acts that they committed years ago then start to shine in a different light. Often, the memories of some deeds weigh heavy. This happened to The Sorcerer. Once, working with The Source, he had destroyed a family. The regime needed it gone and needed it gone in shame. All men and women of the family, along with their kids, were uprooted and discarded. The men died immediately, the women perished in chains after some time, and the children were swallowed by life and forgotten. Now in old age, that act, which looked like duty at that time, throbbed, ached and pricked the insides of The Sorcerer. He could no longer sleep at night. During the day, he never looked awake. He started slipping, and then one day, when they were talking, he took the hand of The Source and told him, “We need to make it right.”
“We need to make what right, my master,” asked The Source.
“We need to fix what we did to that family, and repent,” said The Sorcerer.
“We have done many things to many families,” said The Source. But he knew, with his ability to read between the lines, which family The Sorcerer meant. Even in the grim and ruthless times of the purge that they were living through, the deeds felt sharp in his mind. The Source sensed the danger. This portrait of the family, if brought out in public, would be a doom not just for The Sorcerer but also for the apprentice. It would even touch the masters who slept under the green cupola and The Source couldn’t have allowed that, not at that time.
He sensed his chance. Once The Source brought it to the notice of the masters, complete with a plan, he was given a nod to move ahead immediately. To ensure that he got the message, they told him that a new sorcerer was needed. “I did not have a choice,” The Source thought. “The senile fool would have destroyed us all.”
The Source sat, sipped, and buzzed. It was a perfect plan, executed perfectly. Now that one minute threatened to ruin it all. But it was done and The Source had no way to undo it. There was nothing more to it but to ride the few hours that remained before the newspaper would hit the stand and his phone would, hopefully, ring.
The phone rang some 10 minutes past six. The Source was still in his chair on the balcony, drifting in and out of sleep and anxiety. He looked at the screen; it was The Sorcerer calling. He disconnected the call and switched off the phone. He knew that ambition had won over indignation inside the young heart of the reporter. That one minute in the cinema hall would still cost him dear, but it would do so on some other day. Tonight she had done her part.
Hours later, when The Source was sleeping with his mind blank and body at ease, when the city had started to throb along with the new day, there was a knock on the doors of The Sorcerer. The old man saw it was the secret police. He had read the newspapers; he was waiting for them. It was futile to run and useless to resist. The police inspector leading his boys was known to The Sorcerer; but in this moment, the man, wearing civilian dress and not his uniform, did not recognise him. Keeping a slate-grey face, he put a black bag on the head of The Sorcerer in a swift and well-practiced move. Then pushing and shoving, the gang bundled him inside the waiting truck. Minutes later, the truck was racing out of the city and the police inspector was counting the bullets in his revolver.
Giorgio de Chirico‘s metaphysical painting Engima of a Day (1914). The image is in the public domain.
The story’s description of an authoritarian world, with vast government conspiracies, secrets, corrupt officials and a corruptible media seemed to be neatly mirrored by Chirico’s world with its emptied piazzas, monumental sculptures, deep shadows and brutalist architecture.
Javed is a journalist, currently working as the Technology Editor at one of the biggest media groups in India. On weekdays he writes and reports on the latest technologies and the people who create or use them. In moments when he is not busy in a frenzied digital newsroom, he likes to imagine and conceive stories of another kind. ‘The Source’ is his first published story, although he has been working on a novel for the last four years.
In his own words: “I am a journalist with over 18 years of experience, currently working with one of India’s biggest media groups as its Technology Editor. While journalism has turned out to be a decent career for me, in my mind, it has always been a journey for something else. That something else is reading and writing. It has taken me a while to reach a stage where I believe that I can cross over to the life of literary words. The Source is the first short story I have written, although for the last four years I have been working on a novel. Of course, there is no writing without reading. I read almost everything I can lay my hands on but I am particularly fond of books that break new ground in narration. More Beckett and less Steinbeck for me. I like travelling to unfamiliar cities and walk their streets, and have an obsessive liking for photography. I also follow pop-culture diligently and keep a meticulous tab on, what I call, vagaries of humanity.”