FIRST READ

‘A True Liar’: A short story about a man who lied when awake and told the truth in his sleep

An excerpt from a book of short stories set in the fictional town of Karuthupuza, a la Malgudi.


Velu lived to lie but he never lied to live. Lie was, to Velu, an art. An exalted process of convincing someone about something that wasn’t; a creation above and different from the truth, which, to him, was dull, boring, a given. So, since childhood, he lied for the ecstasy of lying – never to win a point, never to save his skin, never to get him what truth couldn’t.

As Velu sometimes said to his only friends down at the barber shop, “What is there in the truth, anyway? It is a given. It doesn’t demand from your intelligence. Any idiot can tell the truth as it is. It is there in spite of you, the teller.”

Listening to him would be old Sureshan the barber, Poulose the grocer and Thambi, the incredibly dirty orphan who had wandered into Karuthupuzha some years ago. Thambi perpetually had an iron crate full of glasses of tea which he went around distributing to the shopkeepers every morning and evening.

“But the lie is all up to you,” Velu would tell them. “It is more personal, it is yours. You imagine it, carefully create it, until you believe in it, and then you make someone else believe in it, immediately establishing your superiority over him, because he now thinks what you want him to think. His reality is what you have painted for him. When you tell the truth you are just a messenger carrying what is given to you, but when you lie, you are a creator, a god even. In your believers you have created followers of a different reality, one of your own making.’

Barber Sureshan would often look like he might fall at Velu’s feet, but he limited himself to expressing his admiration by applying soap gently on the great liar’s cheeks. Sureshan’s motions upon the face and head of his customers betrayed his opinion of them. If he loved and respected his customer – as he did Velu – he would touch his face with gentle, subservient care, like a loving concubine. If he disliked the customer, positively hated him, he would shove the head around like a jackfruit on the market floor. In the way he placed blade on cheek, in the incessant song of his scissors, and in the language of his long and old fingers, Sureshan expressed his feelings for the people of Karuthupuzha.


Like all artists, Velu took his art very seriously. Lying came with its ethics and guidelines and codes of creation. So he never lied as a means to an end. Indeed, he was very serious about that. He would tell his friends: “But then, you don’t lie for any purpose other than the thrilling, liberating feeling of it. If a magician wants he can put a goldsmith in a trance and take away all the gold. But he never does. If he did that, he would never be a great magician. Likewise, a true liar will not, cannot, use his lie to manipulate anyone, be it for good or bad.’

There was often a curious side-effect to Velu’s art. Sometimes when he created a beautiful new lie for the benefit of his listeners – the mostly clueless innocents of Karuthupuzha – he told the truth in his sleep. The moment his mind dipped into the featureless embrace of a deep slumber, his lips began to move. He spoke in a language not everyone could understand. The words stuck to each other like overcooked rice. But someone really close to him could understand him. Someone who had been by his side when he was asleep. So even his friends at the barber shop knew not of this side-effect. Only the two women in Velu’s life had ever known and understood it.

When he was a little boy, Velu’s mother understood it. She often sat up looking at a smiling moon among the clouds, deciphering his mumbled truths. For a while she worried over Velu’s habit of lying, but soon she realized it was harmless. She understood he lied never for benefit, never to escape anything, but only as a means to vent his creativity, the way poets write poetry or painters paint pictures. She even felt a little proud. At night she listened to his truths: his confession that he really hadn’t been to a rich, foreign country that was an island floating above the clouds. She kissed him when he vaguely articulated that he really hadn’t seen their cow give birth because his mother had forbidden him to look. She sometimes had mild ethical conflicts when he sleep-talked about how he had made Rajan, his math teacher, believe that his parents were foster parents. He had apparently also convinced his teacher to keep this fact a secret.

As a young man, Velu replaced his long-dead mother with Kamala, his wife, who often sat up in bed after being woken up suddenly by his mumbling. Kamala was the smart, intelligent daughter of Sukumaran the constable. Under the same smiling moon, she heard the truths he was compelled to spill out, the realities behind the little tales he had created for Eeppachan Mothalali, his boss for whom he drove a white Ambassador car. Kamala heard out his truths with the same curiosity she had for them on their first night of marriage, when she hardly understood the garbled sleep- talk. But even later, when she began to understand, she never taunted him. Like his mother, she sensed he had an absolute and uncontrollable need for lying. Besides, in the energy and freshness of her youth, Kamala found her husband’s unique oddity an interesting break from the otherwise mundane days and nights of Karuthupuzha.


Over the years, of course, Velu got better and better at lying. So deft, so perfect was his art that no one outside of this close circle knew of his passion. And, of course, he also divined that he sometimes let the truth slip in in his sleep. He was a little puzzled, but not too uncomfortable with this state of affairs. After all, it was only his Kamala who would know. And with her, he never had anything to hide. He could not explain the side-effect to himself, but he had his theories. Perhaps the stories he cooked up needed the foil of truth to make them even more beautiful. Maybe his sleeping mind threw up the truth just so that it could gloat in the extent to which it had been able to create. But on moody days, he sometimes wondered if he let on the truth in his sleep because he didn’t believe in his lies enough. Maybe he had to perfect his art even better, so that his own soul would trust his lies completely, and he wouldn’t know the truth even in his sleep.

At times he told an amused Kamala, “How do you know I am the dull, boring milkman-turned-driver who drives a dull, boring Mothalali around a terribly dull, boring town? I mean, only because that is what I have let out about myself. Maybe if I explained beautifully enough, you would understand that is not who I am at all! I might be a secret agent in disguise, chasing an underworld kingpin who I know is living here, among you all. Or maybe I am a Persian prince who was turned out of his home for falling in love with a beautiful maiden of a lesser class (Kamala’s eyes would smile brightly at this). Anyone. You can only try to discover who I really am. Not the boring old husband you already know everything about, but someone whom you actually know nothing about. A great outcast leader from a distant land, a runaway slave, a rich merchant whose ships have sunk, a bloodthirsty murderer, a treasure-hunter, a spy from an enemy country, a saviour, a hero, a villain, even a dead man who is now a ghost! Do you see how many interesting possibilities good lying can open up?”


One morning Velu was again the only customer in the barber shop. Only his three friends were there and Velu had his head held high to let Sureshan clean away a three-day-old stubble. Thambi the orphan was sitting slumped on the floor among fallen hair, watching as the usual brown-eyed fly came and perched on the rim of a glass of tea. Thambi never drove it away. It looked up at him, winked, and began rubbing its hands together at the smell of the hot tea, getting all ready to dip into it. The boy inspected his dirty fingernails and considered biting them. Suddenly hot tears sprung from his eyes and began flowing down, marking a line along his filthy cheeks.

As Velu turned towards the orphan, the ancient salon chair strained and its ancient springs began to cackle.

“Thambi! What is it? What happened?” Poulose the grocer asked, laying the newspaper down and making to go towards him on the floor but deciding against it. Everyone knew Thambi cried often. His boss, Madhavan Nair, the teashop owner, regularly beat him. Madhavan Nair had, in fact, hired Thambi and the dwarf, Rappai, because he could beat these helpless orphans whenever he felt like. Madhavan Nair wasn’t cruel. It was just that he believed he could get the best out of his employees by beating them for their mistakes.

Sniffing back mucus, Thambi turned his face to show his cheek where, through slates of caked dirt, there still was visible the blue mark of fingers.

“I’m going to talk to that Madhavan Nair!” said Poulose, and Sureshan agreed. But through his sobs Thambi nodded in the negative. It was the same story as always. Velu sighed and straightened his head. If anyone spoke to the teashop owner about the beatings, Thambi would lose his job, and it was common knowledge that no one in Karuthupuzha would give the dirty orphan work. He would starve.

“What is it this time?” Velu asked.

Thambi cried for some time longer. Even the little fly perched itself inquiringly on his shoulders. “It’s the policemen in this town. They’ll have me killed,” he gasped.

When he distributed tea to the police station, Thambi never got paid. At the end of the month when he stutteringly and reverentially presented the bill, they only yelled at him, asking him whether he had a licence for tea distribution, whether he even had a voter’s ID card to explain his presence in the town. They roared that with the documentation he actually had on him, it might do him good to spend a few days behind bars, on a lone diet of punches and kicks doled out by the generous Paachu Yemaan who loved to put wayward orphans where they belonged.

Cackle, cackle, said the salon chair, because it knew that Velu’s father-in-law Sukumaran was a policeman.

“O-only Sukamaran Anna is a good man. He never scolds,” Thambi said with some embarrassment. Velu buried his head into the newspaper, though he wasn’t reading. “And when I come back to the store without the money…” Thambi continued, showing his bruised face again and bursting into phlegm and tears.


Velu knew no method of comforting a crying orphan, but he appeared intensely thoughtful that morning as he left his friends. For the next several days he was not quite himself; he was contemplative and Eeppachan Mothalali kept his eyes peeled to see if he made any mistakes while driving. Kamala found him mumbling to himself at times. But then, she knew he was a very clever man and had seen him lost in thought before. She served him tea and homemade delicacies when he came back from work, and watched him silently as he ate.

As days grew into weeks Sureshan and Poulose noted that Velu came to the barbershop less often, preferring to shave at home. He particularly seemed to avoid Thambi. Once, as he had stepped into the shop, he noticed the orphan slumped on the floor and hurriedly left, mumbling something. Poulose wondered if it was because of the embarrassment about Velu’s father-in-law the other day, but Sureshan the barber knew Velu better. After years of shaving his cheeks, trimming the hair on his head and nostrils, and snipping his eyebrows to size, he knew his friend better than Poulose and Thambi. He knew Velu was disturbed, not angry.

Indeed, Velu was upset. The moment he had seen the bruise on Thambi’s cheek that morning, he knew what he had to do. But then it was something he had never done in his life. On hot afternoons, when he waited for his master behind the wheel of the Ambassador, Velu played in his head his own proud words about the ethics of a great liar. He couldn’t lie even for a good cause, because he had never lied for any cause. How could he manipulate someone, even if it was to help another person?

Then he would think of Thambi the orphan. The dirty one who had a pet fly for company. Like everyone in Karuthupuzha, Velu couldn’t make up his mind about Thambi’s age. Was he a small lad or a young man? He even wondered if Thambi was a eunuch, or maybe mildly retarded. Thambi who cried often so that people would take pity on him. That was only his survival tactic. Now, as Velu sat in the car, a beautiful new myth seemed to sprout in his mind effortlessly.

But there was the quandary again. It would be for the first time … and even his wife, particularly his wife, should never know. Being never a very religious man, Velu could not put his quandary before God. He could only see in his mind the blue bruise on Thambi’s black cheek.


“Dreaming again?” Eeppachan Mothalali was at the door of the car, knocking loudly on the metal. Velu quickly got out and opened the back door for the Mothalali. He saw his boss make that face he did when he caught his employees slipping at work. It was the satisfied look of one who had caught a thief in the act. Velu shouldn’t now be surprised if he got a cut in pay that month for dreaming while on duty. And inexplicably, as he started the car, his Mothalali’s expression helped Velu get rid of his quandary.

That evening he told Kamala, “You know, I was thinking…You’ve been asking to go to your parents” home for long now. Let’s go there this week.”

Deeper into Karuthupuzha, set against the vast golden fields was Constable Sukumaran’s little home. From here, far away, you could see the police station the size of a matchbox. It being a Sunday, Paachu Yemaan’s jeep was not parked outside, as it would be at the police chief ’s home in case he needed it for his private trips.

Kamala was talking excitedly to her mother about this and that, the long and short of which was simply that she and Velu were happy. Her mother contributed now and then with questions about whether they were saving enough and when they planned to have their first child. The two men pretended to hear all this while munching on snacks and drinking tea, a satisfied smile set on their lips.

After tea Sukumaran and Velu left the women to their bubbly mirth and wandered out into the fields for their more manly talk and to smoke countless beedis. It was a matter of pride for the constable when people saw him talking to his son-in-law and smoking with him. It seemed to tell onlookers what a fine choice of a husband he had made for his daughter.

Velu patiently listened as his father-in-law went on about his colleagues, the crop this year, his wife’s arthritis, his own great health, Paachu Yemaan’s impending retirement, international politics, the appalling quality of the movies nowadays, and so on. With a little remark here, a slight observation there, Velu took hold of the conversation gradually. Soon he had ensured that Sukumaran had spoken enough for his own satisfaction and wouldn’t grudge him an ear now. Then slowly, with the smoothness of a master artist, Velu slid in a new topic. Within minutes the old man did not even know when he had fallen silent and was only listening to Velu.


Through the window the women proudly watched their men talk. Even from some distance Kamala could see Velu had started to speak and her father had now turned listener. It was a sight to behold. Set against the golden fields, Velu was like a character in a painting, his arms rising and falling, eyes rolling, and hair flying like tall grass. The beedi burnt itself out in his hands. Kamala’s father was a sight to see too. His expression went from one of amusement to wonder to awe to fear, then back to awe. Why, the old man seemed to have gone into some kind of a trance!

In an instant Kamala knew her husband was lying, weaving his yarns as he went along, lying deeply and passionately and spontaneously to her father and manipulating him. She could not hear a word Velu spoke, but she could see this time he was creating something far greater than he had ever before. She could see it solved some problem that had been eating at him for days. And she knew it had a purpose – unlike never before – or Velu wouldn’t be lying to her father.

Kamala also knew that she never wished to know the truth behind this lie.

When they returned home from this visit, she never asked Velu about his exchange with his father-in-law. On other occasions this had been a ritual for her. She would tell him all about her trivial chatter with her mother, while he would recount his talk with her father. But not this time.

Later that night Velu got down to dealing with the second part of his task, which was to stay awake. He knew the moment he fell asleep, he would begin mumbling the truth. And his wife always woke up, no matter how deep her sleep, the moment he began his sleep-talk. So Kamala slept with the calmness of a child, her arm on her husband’s chest, while Velu stared at the fan overhead. When he felt sleepy, he slowly disengaged her arm, walked up to the window and lit a beedi.

It would be a challenge to stay awake night after night – he did not know for how long. But this was necessary. She was his wife, but she was also the constable’s daughter. He would be failing his friend the orphan if he fell asleep now.


The next few days saw some subtle but surprising changes that sent whispers of mixed feelings across Karuthupuzha.

When Thambi brought tea into the police station, the policemen all but stood up. The two constables outside stiffened to attention, the way they did when Inspector Paachu walked in. Paachu himself now looked at Thambi in a kind manner and sometimes asked him if he was well. Paachu also announced that it was to be reported directly to him if Thambi was ever harassed by anyone. The inspector spoke with a proud growl, and to listen to him, you would think he was the one responsible for Thambi’s new status among the townsfolk.

It was the duty of the police to guard the rights of orphans and the helpless, Paachu clarified.

Constable Chandy was the first to pay up all his dues, which added up to the cost of almost all the tea he had ever drunk from the orphan’s dirty glasses. “Who wants the wrath of an orphan?” he said, echoing the newfound fear of every policeman. His round, close-set, owl-like eyes grew rounder with fear.

“Very true,” said Raveendran the jailer. “My old aunt used to say, an orphan’s curse is more potent than the poison of a rattlesnake.” He had never referred to this aunt’s wise words before.

“True enough,” Sukumaran added with a shudder. “We all know what happened to Murugan the wanderer.’

They all knew that one Murugan, a nomad who went from town to town sharpening kitchen knives, had taken ill just after he reached Karuthupuzha a few years ago. He later died with boils all over his body. The religious elders had overseen his burial at a lonely spot way up the hills, with a lot of rituals and even one animal sacrifice in order to keep the evil spirits reigned. Now the policemen claimed to know (and thought they had always known) that Murugan had loudly picked a fight with Thambi and insulted him mercilessly, days before he had fallen ill.


When Thambi walked in with his crate of overflowing tea glasses and a fly on his shoulder, Raveendran actually cringed with fear. Every policeman observed the orphan with wide eyes. Sure enough, there was something more to Thambi than they could ever know. Here was something above and beyond all natural phenomena, something deep and deadly. Thambi’s reticent smile that was ready at all times to give way to tears now seemed to them like a sneer. His dead, unclean eyes observed everything as if from beyond the grave. His gait was slow, but when you studied it, you realized he really feared no one. His bare feet made an almost inaudible sucking noise every time they left the ground, as if they held the earth in their grip and were loath to let go. But what jailer Raveendran found most terrifying were Thambi’s hands. Their palms were forever wet with sweat. Their fingers were unimaginably dirty and long. The blackened fingernails looked like they could claw out your soul, or rip out your enemies” hearts, depending on how they regarded you. So unsettled was Raveendran by them that he quickly paid Thambi all his dues and then stopped drinking tea. But then he feared that the loss of business might anger Thambi, and so started drinking it again.

Chandru the policeman, who was perpetually on night duty, once brought them the news that Madhavan Nair, the teashop owner, had beat up Thambi again for the smallest of mistakes. Inspector Paachu, who had got a little mild during his last few months before retirement, sent the police jeep and a couple of constables to rough up Madhavan Nair and warn him never to lay a finger on the orphan again. The next day, on further consideration, Paachu had Madhavan Nair hauled into the police station. He held the fat man by his attire and, with his big moustaches almost touching Madhavan Nair’s face, yelled, “If I hear you have fired Thambi from your rotten little tea-stall because you can’t beat him any more, I will mince you into fine chutney.”

Such was the change that shook up Karuthupuzha’s police station days after Kamala and Velu paid her parents a visit. News of it spread across the small town and everyone now regarded Thambi with awe. But known to far fewer people was the change in Velu. He now had dark circles under his eyes. He had lost much of his mirth and sharpness. When Eeppachan Mothalali went to the city for a business deal, he found Velu asleep at the wheel when he came back from a meeting. Back in Karuthupuzha the first thing he did was to ask Velu to find a new job and forego his pay for the last month.

Without argument Velu accepted. It crossed his mind for a moment to invent a lie that would more than explain why he fell asleep, but he very deliberately checked himself, remembering that he would never again lie for a purpose. In any case, he knew the Mothalali would hire him back the next month because there was no better driver in Karuthupuzha than him, sleepy or wide awake.


On the last day of that month Thambi the orphan walked down the market, head held high, an immensely awkward tune on his lips, the crate of tea in his hand. He was heading for Sureshan’s barbershop, bursting with happy news to tell his friends. People watched him from across the street and shop counters with varying degrees of reverence and awe. Thambi hoped there was no other customer at the shop so that he could tell them all that had happened to him, freely and without interruption.

Every single policeman had paid him his month’s dues and a very happy Madhavan Nair had given him a raise! Of course, Thambi knew nothing of how the teashop owner had been persuaded by the police force of Karuthupuzha to treat him well. Some people had given him old clothes while others had offered leftover food. But the strangest incident was this: yesterday postman Kunjhali had placed on his palm a crisp banknote, along with a fresh betel leaf with some areca nut, and asked him to bless his daughter so that she might find a good match at the earliest! Hugely happy and slightly puzzled, Thambi took what was given to him and quickly walked away, in case Kunjhali changed his mind. Around the corner he pocketed the money and threw away the betel leaf and areca nut because he never chewed tobacco.

Thambi did not wonder too much about what could have caused such great a change. Even the considerably little thinking life demanded of him was a strain to him. So, as a policy, he never complicated matters with any further thought. He was happy and he was planning on getting a haircut from his friend Sureshan for the first time ever. So far he had always looked into the cracked mirror at the back of the tea-shop and shaved himself.

Presently, he burst into the barber shop excitedly and began with a yell, “Anna! Suresh Anna…” but Sureshan urgently silenced him with a gesture and a “Sssh’. He pointed at the chair, upon which sat Velu, head dropped on chest, fast asleep. It was the kind of sleep that came from happy exhaustion. With each deep breath the chair groaned quietly. Poulose the grocer stood leaning against the wall, turning the pages of a newspaper noiselessly.

Velu was in the barbershop after a long time. Overjoyed, Thambi slumped down in his usual spot on the floor among the strands of cut hair. He would wait until Velu Anna woke up to tell his story, even if all the tea in the world went cold by then. And slumped on the chair, Velu’s sleeping lips soon began to move in sticky bursts of unclear truths.

But none of his friends could understand what he was saying.

Excerpted with permission from Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, Manu Bhattathiri, HarperCollins India.
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