by Nikhil Kshirsagar
The psychiatrist opened the door to his office and welcomed the new
arrival with a friendly smile. The man had walked in without an
appointment, but luckily there was nothing else scheduled at that time.
He noted the unhurried and languid manner in the way the man moved, as
if he had all the time in the world. Perhaps a bit presumptuous, he
thought, given that the fellow had walked in without an appointment.
Once he settled him in and small talk had been dispensed with, he
waited for the man to speak his mind. After a while he realized the
patient did not seem to pay much heed to the fact that there was a
clock ticking. Maybe a gentle prod in the right direction would help.
“So, what brings you to my office, sir, how may I help you?”, he asked.
In response, the man had simply smiled and begun to look around the
office. The psychiatrist waited a few minutes but nothing was
forthcoming. He tried again.
“Sometimes, I find all it takes for a solution to present itself for a
person troubled with a seemingly unsolvable problem, is to speak his
mind frankly and in total detail with another person. You would be
surprised at how helpful mere conversation is. If all you need is a
friend, you may treat me as one, during these sessions. But sir, we
must remember we are bound by the usual rules of time, and my next
appointment will be here soon.”
The man looked at him, apparently struggling to find the right words.
Then his face changed as if to internally say to himself something
along the lines of “Oh, the hell with it”, or “Here goes nothing”, or
something else, perhaps a thought that the psychiatrist could not read,
and he began to tell his strange story, groping for the right words at
first but more and more confident as he went along. This is what he
“I’ve come to you, not as a last resort, but as a first. Perhaps my
malady is something you may have cured the opposite of. No it’s not
what you think. Let me explain.
I’m a writer, sir. I live alone. I was born abroad and moved to this
country a few months ago. I make a living writing stories for various
anthologies and collections of fiction. In my own country, I had gained
quite a reputation over the years. You may have come across some of my
stories if you’re a reader of modern fiction (No? I see), or perhaps
seen certain offbeat films (No?) whose scripts were based on my
stories, borrowing an idea or two, or at times the entire story. They
did not seem to find favor with the general mainstream public, but went
on to gain quite a loyal following in the underground circuit.
Years ago, when I began writing for a living, it seems my approach was
acknowledged to be somewhat original. Perhaps it was my habit of
writing with paper and pen? I’m old school, you know. Whatever it was,
fortuitously for me, it seems my writing had particular nuances which
were unique and original, leading to analysis over time by both
scholars as well as students of literature, to try and understand what
it was derived from, and which writers seeded my thoughts and lent
their unknowing hands into making me who I was. I’d never write in
anything but the first person. My narrators always seemed to be telling
their own stories. It seemed to my readers I never wrote about anyone
else but me. But as time went on, the situations my protagonists found
themselves in, got increasingly complex, surreal, and difficult to
resonate with reality. Reality, as you know sir, is bland, mundane and
downright boring. Isn't it?”
The psychiatrist smiled and agreed. He let the man carry on.
“And so, over the years, as is bound to happen, my ideas began to lose
their sheen. There is such a thing as running out of ideas, you know.
And I must also tell you something about the process of writing itself.
It’s no good sitting at a desk, pen raised over paper, waiting for
ideas to strike. Writing is a by-product of doing. Where do original
ideas come from anyway, but from the things you see and hear. When I
began to recycle old or borrowed ideas giving them what I felt was an
adequate tweak, my readers distanced me. Reviews were generally
unfavorable. A change was needed. A crisis was looming. And you might
think of it as something every writer must go through, and solving it
is the art of survival, perhaps.
One day a solution arrived. Or perhaps I should say, one night!
Now, I’m generally not a light sleeper. I’ve slept through earthquakes,
storms, neighborhood mayhem. One day I woke and upon re-reading the
draft of a story I had written out the earlier night, I noticed
something strange. It was changed, with certain parts crossed out and
written over. My notes in the margins were also commented upon by a
superior writer. My ending was entirely re-written. The edited
manuscript was placed on my writing desk for me to wake up and discover
the mastery and favor of my unknown benefactor.
I read the modified draft, and knew there could be no better version. I
sent it off to the publishers and received enthusiastic responses that
reminded me of my heyday. The presence of this mystery person
interested more than troubled me, and I felt in time whoever it was
would reveal themselves and their reasons.
Nothing of the sort. This ‘ghostwriting’ carried on. Whoever it was,
was obviously capable of breaking into my room knowing when I was
deeply asleep, and worked silently, rapidly and efficiently. He (or
she) obviously knew my writing well enough to know just what to tweak.
I received no clues as to the identity of this person. All I would get
were far superior stories than the ones my mediocre and saturated mind
could conjure up. In fact the real genius of this person was to use my
very same themes and ideas but with much better results. I think it’s
more difficult to change an average idea to an excellent one, than to
create an excellent one from scratch.
This happened at least twice a week, if not more. A few months of this,
and I was resurrected as a writer. My reputation was re-established,
and recently, some stories of mine were even marked as recommended
reading for college degrees and literature diplomas. This is all very
recent. I am in the process of becoming one of the stalwarts of the
field, one of the names people throw at each other in art galleries and
literature workshops, discussing my style, my re-inventing myself, and
this new ‘phase’ of my fiction writing. As a writer, you could say I
saved face. But to whom did I owe this face-lift?
It was time to find out. At first I locked my windowless bedroom and
kept the key under my pillow as I slept. As if to mock my absurd
attempts at obstructing my own advancement, the next morning I found
the first complete story my ghostwriter had written. My incomplete
draft was untouched this time, but placed on it were newly written
pages, detailing a story composed of ideas and concepts I was
completely incapable of conjuring up.
Now this I could no longer pretend to ignore. Until now, I would
assuage my guilt by telling myself that the stories were mine and
merely modified. But sending this brilliant work off for publication
under my name presented an ethical problem of a less ambiguous nature.
I needed to know who visited in the night and left me written pearls
that were so brilliant that not sending them off for publication would
have been an equal sin.
The next thing I tried was to place a hidden camera in the room. While
this is not as easy as it sounds, I managed to eventually disguise it
behind one of the light fixtures, which also I left turned on, so I’d
be able to see with enough clarity what the camera would capture. It
turned out all this stealthiness was completely unnecessary.
The next few nights passed without incident. Neither did the camera
capture anything but my sleeping form, nor was there any new material
for me to read and learn from. However, the fourth night I did see
something. It happened around three AM or so, the time I supposed
myself to be in deepest sleep, dreaming of things that did not matter.
What I saw was myself, rising from my bed and walking to and sitting at
my writing desk, my eyes still shut, my chest still rising and falling
uniformly, and (if you still think there is any doubt in the matter),
my loud snoring accompanying silent writing that I proceeded to
scribble out without a single pause. I wrote for more than an hour.
Then without fuss, I laid the pen back in its proper place before
sleepwalking back to my bed. What I left for my waking self to read
that astonished morning turned out to be a fiction piece that earned me
a recent Queen Mary Wasafiri award for literary achievement.
Subsequently, I watched myself perform this sleep-writing several
nights, almost each time coming up with true and original masterpieces
that are, as we speak, redefining the very nature and structure of the
short fiction story format itself. Greater writers than me have begun
to imitate my style, the most significant honor one writer affords
another. This was all a dream come true, and even the little guilt I
had felt for using plagiarized ideas faded away. Do you think it’s
strange that I proudly claim the material as mine though I could never
come up with anything like it in my waking life?”
It was a few seconds before the psychiatrist realized he was expected
to interject and answer. The patient waited motionless, not speaking.
“No”, he finally managed, “No, it’s not strange. You’re still you when
you’re asleep”, he said. “Continue, please, this is most fascinating”.
“Well”, the man continued, “this happy partnership flourished for a
while. But then something changed in the style and manner of what I was
writing out in my sleep. And you’re probably wondering where you fit
in, and why I’ve come to see you, and I’m getting to that bit now.
What I began to find on my writing desk in the mornings were initially
nonsensical writings, then progressing on to disturbing material. Some
days it was total gibberish, or bland stories replete with grammatical
errors and spelling mistakes. And sometimes I would be staring in the
morning at foolish and inane rhymes, like those absurd and nonsensical
songs children invent for themselves, to sing to themselves. The video
recordings of these instances show nothing unusual - (to use the term
with generous license) - what I mean is, my dozing demeanor was no
different than when I’d leave myself coherent and creative masterpieces.
Then one day I found myself reading a demon infant’s graphic account of
bizarre carnal experiences with old, frail and arthritic consorts. I
wasn’t sure who was molesting whom. I say demon because no human,
juvenile or otherwise, could create a depravity as in that document,
with vulgar metaphorical winks at the reader and an air of such moral
decadence and kink that it left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth.
This draft I destroyed immediately. More such accounts followed, at
times with notes in the margin stating that ‘No-body’ or ‘No-won” (sic)
was writing these accounts. Again, I would destroy the drafts,
sometimes before reading them till the end. Never did I leave myself
anything I could use for profit or gain.
As you can imagine, I did my best to fix it. I sedated myself before
sleep. I drank warm milk with nutmeg. I stood on my head. I tried self
hypnosis. But all that merely magnified my sleep-writer's trance, and
in the morning I would be puzzling over accounts of torture in the
first person so real that it was impossible to believe they could have
been imagined or dreamed.
On a few later surreal occasions I found that the material was written
in phonetic reverse and needed to be vocally read into a recorder and
then played back in reverse to make any sense of, and upon doing that I
would, at times, witness coherent sentences emerge, though bland and
tasteless. More often though, the reversed language would yield
rhythmic chants or incantations in a language I did not know. And
sometimes it sounded simply like growls or whimpers of living creatures
This went on for some time and then suddenly stopped. The next few
nights were without incident. And now a new situation doctor. For the
last few nights, the video recordings show me sleep writing again, but
it’s the exact same story each morning. To me, this is the same as
someone writing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", over and
over again. I have brought it along with me in case you can make any
sense of it. Perhaps my sleep self feels it is worthy of publication
and hence the repetitive insistence?”
The doctor had never heard anything like this but was keenly interested
and said “You say you have something you have repeatedly written each
night in your sleep? Let me take a look, perhaps we could interpret it
as Freud would interpret dreams? Perhaps it might explain the entire
thing, from start to finish?”
The man reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and brought out a
sheaf of folded pages, filled with neat writing. He handed them over.
The psychiatrist glanced at the first line, then his eyes widened and
he read the first page with increasing surprise, then quickly turned
the pages and looked at the last line, which was exactly the same as
the first. It was -
“The psychiatrist opened the door to his office and welcomed the new arrival with a friendly smile.”
© 2021 Nikhil Kshirsagar
Bio: Nikhil Kshirsagar lives in Pune, India. He takes inspiration
(and a lot more, if you ask me) from authors like Nabokov, Asimov and
Dahl. In his free time he feeds and nourishes his considerable
hypochondria. He also rapidly tires of writing about himself in the
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