A brooding silence again. Nobody is talking. The valley of silence gazes at a dusty and hazy sunset. Still plenty of time left for the night to take over and hush everything to slumber. I look outside my window to find the tan road getting bored to death. Not many bestowed upon it, the comfort of their company at this hour when sun stood mindlessly fuming down one’s neck. The time seems to have gelled, slowly plodding with the monotonous ticks of the clock by my bed side.
The Indian summers dry your bones and sap away all what is fluid in you – including your flow of thought. It drains your pores, makes you go dizzy. The visual comprehension of motion resigns with the ceiling fans sputtering and halting at irregular intervals, for a length of time that would feel longer than what you have lived so far, courtesy the perennial faults in the northern grid and time-tabled power cuts.
Not knowing what to do, I rose from my bed and almost instantly lost the grit to walk another step. The copper floor under my feet expressed my mistake. I had delusions of lava oozing out of the cracks in the flattened copper sheet on which I was walking, blazing my bare soles and testing my self-command. I sank back, raised my feet to the bed in a lotus position and rested my head on the wall. A chunk of plaster succumbed and gave in. I felt as brittle as the walls supporting my roof.
My fading eyesight and limping heartbeat left me with little to do than to while my time away mumbling yarns to my self. Every once in a while I would hold my pieces together and put my lore on the russet waste paper living in a coma in the drawer of my study table; the only other piece of furniture beside my bed that survived the test of time and financial difficulties.
I closed my eyes, wearily dreaming of the clouds and shade, of rains and the childhood monsoons that had deserted me long ago. There wasn’t much to do anyway.
Today I was reminded of my morning walks, a daily routine then, and which now sublimed like a luxury to my sepia memory. The early morning breeze and the wet shine on grass and the side walks which then seemed so ordinary were like waves of passion and delight now on which I would muse, surfing for hours at a stretch. I would walk barefoot in the City Park on the grass that gave in under the feet like a mushy carpet till the time sun crept up and lured the grass to attain a husky dry arrogance and light up a gradual revolt that would prompt every bureaucratic oppressive foot to seek refuge in the respective slippers.
Times had changed now. I quit taking those walks ever since time and urbanization took away the park to give way to a colony of diversified species of human race who thronged to the city after the state government decided to spring out an industrial sector on the outskirts of the city, where fields of corn once stood looking at the murky jotted line of road connecting to the nearest metro. This was a colony where people did not know each other. Every house stood its ground as witness to the daily routines of herds of people. These people crossed the thresholds when sun lay at very acute angles, in two different directions, to the horizon. The houses too resembled these people, specks in the crowd, undistinguishable to each other sans the clothes that were hung upon the walls.
The town that I started my life in and probably would finish too had become a stranger over the years. The lanes where I played in the dust and loitered around during my early days and whose bricks and stones remembered my face, had during the course of time shun their backs at me. The few surviving trees that shaded my playtime wore a weathered weary look much as the wrinkles on my forehead. There were very few signs of my existence left and these were scattered over the battered remains of the town that perhaps now existed only in my memory. The old town-hall had my name inscribed on a stone as the legendary poet and orator who held captive, audience from various parts of the nation for hours at a stretch in the same premises. The words that echoed its walls were however, long forgotten.
Living in oblivion today, I was a celebrated personality then. Money flowed in from publishers and patrons alike and life was an ongoing festival. I basked in the applause and thrived on the people who thronged my house hoping to catch a verse or two. Those were the days when I did not see short shadows on the pavements. The bazaars were better illuminated in those oil wick lamps as compared to the Chinese bulb decorations today. One did not grow suspicious of the smiles that were exchanged. Compliments, then, did not ornate themselves in the garb of sarcasm and neither were born of the womb of riches.
My figure of poise has long been crumbled. Today, I stand like a pander seeking bread through the harlots of my previous works, living on odd meatballs thrown at me across the desks of publishers who swear at me.
Earlier my returned work accompanied humble apologies marked in elaborate sentences and ornate letters from friendly publishers stating that much as they would like my verses to reach masses, compelling pressures for commercial readership forbids them from giving my creation their due respect. Sooner the letters became plainer and friends were lost to new age businessmen. The readership succumbed from connoisseurs to filmy loafers who bought verse packaged in plastic sheets to jot it in a cheap card addressed to their lasses.
Even prose is so different now. I guess, it melted like cheap plastic under the first flame and shaped itself to please its suitors. Light words with shallow meaning and flimsy plots woven around characters of average stature and low dignity throng the pages. I no longer palpitate with fury at the sight of rotting verse. Just an occasional sigh and I recline with my eyes shut to the scene. The age of mass production expands its product range – literature now included.
The clock struck 4 in the noon. The calendar continued fluttering at a date 3 weeks ago. The ceiling fan creaked to a halt again. Beads of sweat trickled down my back again. It was strange as how I was listless and restless at the same time. Will I survive this ordeal or succumb under the mounting wilts like old rye under moulds? I don’t know. Life had probably lost its meaning long before I accepted the fact. It has been a battle long over, a show forgotten – a rancid reel from the past yet something in me never ceased to give up. I had always kept killing myself as an open option but somehow could never be sure if life had done enough to me for me to throw in the towel. Maybe there was something worse still waiting to happen, maybe I should wait a little more. I guess I wanted more dignity and proper ovation to my final journey than just a scrappy finish and I hung on waiting for clouds to shade my rest.
A loud rap on my door broke my chain of thoughts. I ignored it first but it demanded attention. Somebody was persistently trying to tear down my door with bare knuckles. I got up. The knuckles hit the wood again. I paused. Normally I would have scurried to the door and flung it open to let the tornado in but I was so amused at the urgency of the visitor that I waited another few knocks. It was an unusual mix of thoughts and emotions. I was feeling bitter, reluctant and lazy at the same time. I let the visitor feel the anguish of the summer sun, hurting his hands on my door. Maybe he would go away on his own. But I guess that was not the case to be. The rapping continued and some young voice muffled my name. Probably who ever it was, felt guilty of disturbing me at this hour, considering that people my age and vocation usually spent their summer afternoons in slumber.
I opened the door to find a smiling young lady in corporate formals fumbling through some sheets of paper she was carrying in a plain leather bag which was held by a straight strap on her shoulders. She had a plain face and a fair complexion with long black hair tied in a plait. She must have been in early thirties however her dark eyes in deep sockets made her look like a child out to explore the world. I stood for a while looking at her as she extended courtesies and introduced herself as an executive on the editorial board of a lesser known publication and waited for me to lead her inside.
I had never been ashamed of my limited means and my way of living, yet I ran a list check of all the items that lay spilled under my roof and was still contemplating if I should let her in first or enquire about the purpose of the visit first. Her eyes wandered off beyond my shoulder to the visible portions of the room inside and I automatically stepped a little to the side to allow her to command her way in.
It took me a moment to realize that she walked in confidently, looking straight ahead and headed for the chair as if she had always known that it was placed there for her to sit upon. As I closed the door and followed behind, it seemed like I was the visitor and she the owner of the place. I motioned my arm and waited for her to sit before I let myself upon a corner of the bed. It took me a moment to get accustomed to my apartment and I kept looking at her as she opened her bag and handed me a small 50 page paperback and her visiting card. The name Megha was printed in blue type face and below the name stood in emphatic letters ‘Co-Editor, New Age Publications’
The title on the paperback sparkled in red with the author’s name neatly printed in a matching tone at the bottom of the cover. There was a small sketch of a women standing by a tree in the middle. It took me a while to realize that it was my name on the cover as the author and the book was a collection of short stories I had written almost two and a half decades ago.
I looked up at her and smiled weakly. I almost felt like a small child who is caught red handed stealing pickle from the kitchen. I was wondering what to say when Megha, who had by now settled herself into the rickety chair, took out a small kerchief from her bag and wiped her forehead.
“Pretty hot today, it took me a long to get your address correct. I tried looking up for your number, could not find; finally got a friend from another publication dig it out…” she continued in the same breath.
I did not have anything to say and looked sideways. Probably she was also told that I had died long ago. It did not matter. I reached over to my table to a jug and offered her a glass of water.
“Here, have this.” I said and returned to sit on bed.
She gulped down half the glass and continued. “We are running a campaign to revive some of classics of yore by eminent authors. To this end, we have acquired re-printing and publishing rights for some of your works as well. I am sure that the new generation would be mesmerized by the verses you have written over time. I am sure about the wave it shall create…..literature …..certain…rights…works….verses…generation…” I lost the track and just kept looking at her.
When I returned to the chain of conversation, Megha was looking at me, expecting to hear something. “Huh” I fumbled.
“So, will you do it Sir?” she asked.
“Yeah, what”? I questioned back.
“Sir, write us a new set of stories on a regular basis for our magazine.”
“I don’t know. It’s been a while since I wrote. Nobody wants to read my stories any more. I am an impulsive writer, just can’t write anything.” I feebly excused myself.
“Sir, people do wish to read you. There has been a revived interest in the poetic classics and we have been receiving requests to have your sets published and printed once again. Recently somebody conducted an online poll about the best contemporary literary works and ‘Aviral’ your last published collection of stories was amongst the top 5.” She persisted.
“I haven’t touched pen in 100 years now. I don’t know how to pen down scripts or songs for any of your films or magazines.” I mocked myself.
“Sir, please take this as an opportunity to show the world what you have always been capable of. It’s high time that people come forward to give their due respect to all your work”.
“We shall not be able to pay much right away, but we sure have been pulling the right strings on this and have got ample people interested to support the cause and revive some of your best works.” She implored
“Just how much do you think shall you be able to pay”? She had got me interested with the last part. However, having put the question forward I again felt like a hustler trying to strike a deal with a street urchin.
Megha looked a little surprised. Perhaps she too shared my vision. “Umm, to begin with the publication would hand over to you, a draft for 10,000/- as a token of our appreciation for you to consider us and we would have a draft for an equal amount waiting for you every month subject to your fulfillment of the terms as laid out by the company”. Megha replied in the most practical tone that she could master.
She took out a yellow envelope from her bag and proceeded to open it and continued. “The terms as laid out in the agreement would be…”
“…that I shall write for you, what you want, in the time frame you want.” I cut her short and saved her the effort of reading out the details.
“..Umm a minimum of 3 short stories and 3 poems, two on a subject as guided by the monthly theme of the magazine and one of your choice. The publication would reserve the right to all your work and pick the one that is voted best by our editorial panel. The company offers the remuneration as 2000/- per selected story and 750/- for every poem that is picked”. She continued professionally.
“What about the monthly draft that you said would wait for me every month”? I scorned.
“Sir, the company distributes its share of profits to all its worthy members. You shall receive your draft every time the magazine has its 10,000th issue sold”. She hesitated and then continued. “Sir, this is just a formal policy that is commonly applied. We all have been receiving our drafts regularly for last 3 months.”
I looked at the yellow envelope that she had in her hand and then at her face. My jaw was stiff. I did not know what to say. The bawd wanted the money. The poet did not care. I looked at the chit of the girl who trod upon my being and though being submissive and careful with words knew at the back of her mind that she was here to buy me. I sat still.
Watching me go stone, Megha shifted uneasily. She looked around and I guess could easily read the writing off the falling plaster on the wall. She gazed and grazed the surface of the pile of books in one corner, startled the spiders on my walls and rummaged through my load of worn out clothes hanging on a nail on the other end. All this while, she sat still and her eyes did not rest on anything in particular. She returned to my face and looked right into my eyes. She knew she could buy me out. She knew she would not face any adversaries and that she could even bargain for my price.
“Sir, I shall leave this agreement here for you to read over. Please go through it and sign it.” She half requested, half demanded it now.
I looked up and a hollow cough escaped my throat.
“I shall come back again tomorrow to collect this agreement and shall bring your draft with me.” She added with a smile.
I wanted to protest. I wanted to tell her that I would not write for anybody else’s whims and command. I wrote at my free will to vent myself out. I wanted to shout at the top of my voice that I was not available for sale. I was never impressed by all the money in the world, I was not impressed now.
I could not say anything.
Megha quietly got up from the chair and in a swift motion neatly placed the yellow envelope and the copy of the agreement on my table. She adjusted the pink electricity bill to place her papers right in the centre of the table and faced me with such agility that I had a chill run down my spine.
“Sir, I shall be going now and would return the same time tomorrow. Please take care. Thank you so much.” She finished her sentence in the same breath and walked out as she had come, in command of the situation and as confident.
Long after Megha had gone, I continued to stare at the yellow piece of paper that for some unknown reason, appeared to shine bright on my table. I did not move across to pick it and read, but held my ground staring at it. I thought it would burn to cinders on its own and tear down the house and my being with it. It continued mocking me. Right behind it, the electricity bill became its second. The pink rectangular sheet, which was pleading for attention till a couple of hours ago, now had a strong ally in a shining armor to its aid. Together they conspired on how they could get me on my knees and make me pay for all my years of felony.
Unable to bear more, I closed my eyes. My entire life revisited me. I saw myself laughing with my pals in my days of youth, penning down verses in fire by the light of an oil wick, reciting my heart out, the town hall swarming with my audience, publishers queuing outside my living room carrying fruit baskets and sweets on Diwali, my wife standing behind my chair as I wrote from evening till dawn….
Then, there the days of limited means. Riots in the city, my loyal publishers sitting with open palms, apologies extended, cinema and TV taking away people away from books, the film magazines, days of loitering around, selling off belongings, me talking of my principles, no, I would not write titillating prose because it sold, the child lost to typhoid, my wife breathing her last wanting me to read to her a couplet that I penned for her…
Then there was today. A piece of flesh being tossed at me for me to grab by my paws and submit myself to gyrate to the tunes of what people wanted.
I was often accused of being obstinate and stubborn and foolish to not move with the times. I didn’t know which ground I stood then and which one I walked now. I never felt the need to justify my actions before anybody before. Oddly enough I could not explain anything to myself now. Was I then wrong all along to practice what I believed in? I always stood for keeping my morals high and not to be sold off on material life. Till date, I thought I was as a strong tree that bravely faced all the wind and all the tornados of the world. Today I discover that the big round brown tree has a hollow trunk, rotted by little termites and eaten away. The supple grass at my feet waited for me to fall, the creepers receded to more elaborate structures, those which were loyal waited patiently to die with me. I felt blank. My thoughts made my head spin. What should I do? Should I succumb to a death in anonymity choking on my measly morsels one of these days? The dignity that holds my breath would go with me. Or should I grab the envelope, mark my acceptance and ferociously write whatever I am asked to, burst out full energy and win myself those accolades all over again before finally my heart stopped beating?
I guess, my heart did stop beating and feeling for things long ago, when I had rested my pen. The engine and the valves just did not stop pumping the oil of blood into the mechanics of my motor. I stood on the edge.
I was amazed at the thought that I still did not consider failure as an option. What if I failed to make a mark for myself again? I would then possibly lose what ever respect I had earned over the years. Maybe the respect now was buried deep under the pages of time, but surely there would be somebody out there who would know that I existed. Surely someone still passed an odd book around that has my name as the author. I was amused at my confidence. The old heart palpitated with fervor. I still believed in myself. Certainly if I accepted the offer, I would not fail anybody else but myself. Laurels and recognition would follow again, maybe at the cost of a sold conscience.
I looked at the envelope that rested on my table, as if dictating authority. Maybe it was commanding my old pens sitting in an empty can to mind their own business. Maybe it was jeering my table lamp on its broken switch. I chuckled.
My eyes went past the envelope to the picture of my wife hanging on the wall. It occurred to me that I had not bought a new garland to hang on the picture for a while now. I was reminded of the days when I would make it a point to buy her flowers for her hair every time that I stepped out of the house to the market. The garland of paper roses seemed a luxury now, out of limited means.
I got up and wiped the dust on the picture with the sleeve of my shirt and looked at the picture for a while. Her eyes were bright as ever. Honest and endearing, they looked at me from behind the glass in the wooden frame. Her smile was restrained but exuded beads of self-respect just around the corners. She looked approvingly at the camera and now while I held the picture in my hand, at me.
I tried to imagine her opinion on the given situation. She would have supported me thick and thin on every aspect, no doubt. But would her smile remain so.
I recalled the way she passed on, looking at me, listening to me as I read her my verses. She was in pain, the doctors admired her courage. Her ailment chewed at her flesh and gnawed at her guts, yet she never lost hope. She smiled when ever she heard me read out to her. She would flutter her eyes, as she often did in her youth, held my hand and often asked if I would still write her a poem when she gets 100 years old. Sadly she never went beyond 35. The poem that she wanted me to write when she would be 100 years of age was still pending.
I paused at the thought. In a sudden flash, like a bolt from the sky I had all my answers. The picture in my hand reminded me that she wanted me to write a poem for her. I could no longer sell my pen for a few silver coins. My verses did not belong to anyone else.
I hung the picture back on the wall and reached for the envelope and its contents and in a flash shredded it to tiny bits. No longer that I threw the fibred carcass of the envelope in the bin under my table, I picked up my pen and pad and started my long due poem.