The Best of Tall Tales is a collection of stories curated from the lives of real people. The storytellers in this collection bare their soul, share their inner-most desires, fears, hopes, and inadequacies. Yes, it’s a one of its kind collection where the stories are real, characters are real, and so is their pain and pleasure. One story talks about the ups and downs of being Bollywood extra; the other takes you into the life of a fortune teller; and yet another shows you the terror of stalking! These tales will leave you shocked, and at the same time these will inspire you. They don’t push just one button—they push all your buttons. And that’s the common thread among all the short stories you’ll read in this book.
What do these stories, have in common? They’re born from deep honesty, which might be the most important ingredient in a great story. Comic stories, scary stories, romantic stories, stories on social justice—they all go from interesting to unforgettable.
Michael Burns is a university teacher, writing coach, actor, editor and storyteller. Originally from the United States, he has been living in Mumbai since 2011. Below you can read an excerpt from his book, The Best of Tall Tales. Courtesy: Rupa Publications India.
An Excerpt from The Best of Tall Tales by Michael Burns
It was hanging in my room. Wearing a white saree, it tapped rhythmically against the wall in the cold breeze of the night, casting long shadows on my bed and grinning back at me in the moonlight.
It was the skeleton, my roommate.
The skeleton came into our possession in the early 1990s in a desperate attempt to save my father’s legacy. Dad was a brilliant doctor, or so they say. He died before I could form any clear memories of him, so their word is all I have to go by. When we, his offspring, all started showing a flair for the arts, Ma did what Indian mothers do in that situation—she sprung into damage control mode. A fully-equipped home lab was created, complete with test tubes, beakers, chemicals that smelled like dead animals, body parts in jars of formaldehyde, and yes, the real skeleton of a deceased person.
I slept in that lab. Not because we didn’t have enough rooms—it was a looming, old, ancestral home and so there were many rooms—but because it was the only room free of pesky humans. No one ever entered the dark, smelly lab. Life happened outside of it. There, in its odd quarantine, I had the luxury of complete privacy—time froze and I could get lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. So, what’s a measly little skeleton to deal with?
Mr Sen, my sister’s tutor for biology, was working his way through medical school, and one evening, after he had completed a study session at our dining table, we unveiled the skeleton for his expert (or soon-to-be expert) opinion. He employed questionable forensic skills and identified the bones as such: female; approximately twenty-four years old at the time of death; unmarried (I don’t know where he got that detail from); and cause of death—head injury. There was a crack in the skull indeed. We guessed that it was probably from a road accident, or maybe a fall.
Or maybe it was a quick blow to the head with a blunt instrument. Yes; definitely that. Let’s definitely say murder. Much more dramatic.
It was my Dida (Bengalis call their maternal grandmothers ‘dida’), who thought that dressing her in a saree would keep her clean. We wouldn’t have to dust her, which was a good point. So they wrapped her in Dida’s laal paar shaada saree (which is a traditional Bengali white saree with a red border), draped a ghomta (veil) over her head, and hung her on the hook in my room. And so, I had a lab as a bedroom, with the skeleton of a (possible) murder victim hanging for company, facing my bed, wearing a white saree, and rattling about in the dead of the night.
And I was cool with it.
Ma would make me label her body parts, count her vertebrae and locate where the organs would have been. I’d lie on the bed and stare at her, and I’d create these elaborate stories with me and the skeleton as adventurers, pirates, detectives, and even—dare I say it?—lovers. Hadn’t Healthcliff from Wuthering Heights dug out Catherine from her grave, clung to her skeletal remains on a dark and stormy night, and taught everyone that that’s how real love was supposed to be?
Clearly, while my mother was trying to turn me into a doctor, I was turning into a storyteller.
Eventually, my mother realized that we weren’t going to win the school biology prize (which was named after our Dad), unless we hoped to do so with particularly eloquent poetry. My older sisters, despite much resistance, had all chosen different, non-science, academic paths, and I quickly turned out to be a lost cause.
One day, the test tubes and jars in the lab mysteriously disappeared. Taking this as a sign that my mother had given up on me, I dug out old books from my grandfather’s trunks: War and Peace, Waiting for Godot and short stories about Russian prostitutes by Guy de Maupassant—I was ten. I populated the now-empty shelves with these books, along with the occasional Enid Blyton. It was a confusing time. The bookshelves went all around the room, starting from the floor and reaching the ceiling. Every once in a while, I would climb them like a jungle-gym and pick my book of choice to get lost in. It was bliss.
My bedroom had gone from being a lab to a library. Only the skeleton remained as evidence of my mother’s feeble attempts at manipulating our future.
That’s when they built her a coffin.
The coffin was specially crafted to her dimensions—the carpenter measured her out. And just to spice it up, they painted it lime green; not because Dida expressed herself through colour irony, but because that’s what was left of the house paint. Always the practical one, Dida slapped a mattress on top of the coffin and it beautifully doubled up as the maid’s bed. Of course, the maid never knew, which I’ve always felt kind of bad about. And so the skeleton stayed, as the maid’s bed companion, for a good couple of years. We wondered why Ma didn’t just get rid of the skeleton, but she had her plans.
A decade later, we found out exactly what those plans were.
One fine day, my mother mused aloud, ‘Accha, how much does it cost to ship a skeleton to the US?’
We were moving to our new home—one without a lab. My oldest sister had married and moved to Los Angeles and had had a baby. My other sister and I were old enough and so it was a good time to leave the ancestral home and shift into a cozy apartment nearby. Most of our stuff was coming with us—but not the skeleton.
The skeleton was applying for a green card.
On careful questioning, it appeared that Ma, knowing that we were lost causes, had secretly pinned her hopes on the fact that one of us would produce an heir with a flair for science. Since my sister had married an Ivy Leaguer, the one-year old offspring of this divine union must be science-worthy, she thought. So what if the little one can barely walk? Catch ‘em young, right! No better way to introduce the child to wonders of medicine than with a real, full-sized skeleton to use as a rattle.
The feasibility of shipping the skeleton was discussed at length. We wondered about the legality of trying to ship a real skeleton with a cracked skull to distant land. Was there a statute of limitations on murder and evidence gathering? Whether the fear was legitimate or unfounded, the thought of possible jail time finally convinced my mother to abandon her grand plans of skeleton relocation.
And then she took the logical, and therefore, to us, the most shocking step—she finally got rid of the skeleton.
She sold the skeleton to a student of homeopathy for `1000, coffin included. Ma still laments the selling: ‘I bought it for `5000 in those days, mind you.’ And just like that, all traces of my one-time companion, my fellow saree-clad, deceased adventurer were gone, along with my mother’s high hopes for our future and the future of generations to come.