Thursday, June 14, 2012

The True Self -- Devlina

I woke up to the persistent rings of the alarm clock on the bedside table, fragments of
a distant dream sticking to my head. It was just after six on a groggy Sunday morning. I cursed to myself and got up from bed. A cup of coffee ought to set things right, was I trying to pacify myself? It had been over five years now, I was still stuck with the same column, still waiting for something that would either make or break my literary career, getting it over with instead of lingering in oblivion. I worked for The Times, a decent newspaper where I make a more or less decent living, at the cost of hurting my idealism and my dream of writing fiction someday. My column talks about new and promising writers, their work and aspirations. Everytime, I write about them, I tell myself I'll quit and I'll write my own novel one of these days. Nothing has changed since I first started writing the column. I was supposed to meet a “promising” writer today, I hated that word, what could it mean? Promising indeed...selling lies, making money for the publishing house, making people's lives better and some other crap. There was nothing wrong with that, just that I hadn't found my story yet, it's like you have a voice but have nothing to say, so it was natural for me to feel resentful.
       After putting the kettle on, I walked out to the verandah to take a look outside. The apartment belonged to my uncle, sejokaku, who now lived in the States with his son. I was sort of taking care of his house, of course saving a lot on rent in the process. How could a struggling writer afford a swanky two bedroomed flat in old Ballygunge road. I rather liked the place, lot of open spaces, wide rooms and a huge verandah overlooking the lane. A large Gulmohar tree hid the verandah from outsiders, but one could see the road below through the sinewy branches. It seemed as if a soft cocoon hid the apartment from the strife of the outside world. I glanced at the old wall clock in the sitting room, it was quarter to seven. I had to hurry, after weeks and months of mails and phone calls, I had finally managed to get through to A. He was much of a recluse. To think a writer attaining critical and popular adulation at the same time, yet he seemed more and more withdrawn after each of his would seem almost as if he was hiding from something or someone....I laughed at my train of thought, an eccentric writer albeit a famous and “promising” one, becoming a part of a greater mystery would be too much to handle on such a drowsy Sunday morning, won't it?
I had burnt my tongue, the coffee was scalding hot. I decided to take a bus to Rashbehari and walk the rest of the way to A's house in Southern Avenue. The streets were nearly deserted; very few people and vehicles could be seen. A blue blur appeared in front of me, I boarded the bus, finding a seat by the window. It would be wise to think about his work on the way, to collect my thoughts and ponder on the queries I might have, I thought to myself. A was a clerk at the General Post Office Kolkata, he had a tedious 5 to 9 job and lived a life of anonymity. He started on his first book when he was two years away from retirement, amidst a lot of ridicule and scepticism he went on to publish his book using his life's savings. From then there was no looking back, prominent publishing houses want him now yet he seemed to be unaffected, untouched by his fame. He still lives in a dusty dilapidated house which was home for his ancestors as well. Why wouldn't he lead if not a lavish at least a better lifestyle, why not shift to a better place or fix his old house, why wouldn't he take any interest in who publishes his books, the royalties he has earned or the literary awards he has won....such questions were beyond speculation....and would make me think more deeply about the silly conspiracy, rather the persecution theory I had had previously!! Of all the crappy things in this world, why was I stuck with this thought?
       The bus stopped with a jolt, I had reached my destination. I paid for the ticket and landed myself on the road. As I had expected, the Rashbehari crossing was less crowded than usual. I walked through a daze of thoughts, trying to keep track of the way. It was a pleasantly cold morning, Southern Avenue was shrouded in trees, an interesting interplay of shadow and light could be seen on the wide pavement. I was feeling quietly happy somehow, given my usual sour morning mood. The house came into view, it was like a rude shock shattering the quietude of the place. Gnarled branches of some died out trees hugging the structure, as if they let go, the house might just float away. It was quite a disturbing sight, affecting a part of me I couldn't quite reach. I wasn't sure of what I should next, there was a bell which I could ring but I was feeling strangely apprehensive. I was spared of the ordeal; an old man opened the door. He looked tired and worn, he gave me a piercing look, then nodded in understanding. Apparently, he knew why I was there without a word from me. The strangeness of the situation was making me more uneasy every moment.  He led me through a staircase which leads to a passage, finally to a small room which seemed like a parlour. It was less shabby but still wore the air of much use and neglect. My spirits had almost plummeted to the depths of misery and disdain when I chanced upon another figure sitting by the window. It was a young woman, with beautifully unkempt hair. She looked at me and gave me a friendly smile. She must come to meet A for an interview as well, I was feeling better already. I seated myself across her.
“I am so glad to have found a company!” She had a softly hoarse voice and such delicate lips. I found myself at a loss of words for a while, recovering at the last moment I smiled back at her. She glanced at a door at the end of the room, I hadn't noticed it till then. She leaned in and whispered in a conspiring fashion. “It's him you know, I have been waiting here for about an hour now. He hasn't come out of his room, I can swear I almost hear him pacing ....but till now no show!” She gave an exasperated look.
“He lives upto his reputation then...what do you make of his work? You must have read most of them?” I thought this could work for me, I could have better chance of getting to know her and then she might give me some more insight into A 's stories as well.  She shrugged her shoulders in a non-committing way.
“I wouldn't say I am an expert, but I have read all of his novels...strangely Gothic, don't you think...yet so haunting...Have you read his latest, 'The Air Balloon'?  I was enthralled by the thought of invisible formless beings, living in air bubbles all around us, guiding us to either ecstasy or agony?” Her eyes shone in excitement, I found myself staring at her face, framed by unruly curls. I longed for a smoke suddenly. “What really made me think was this idea of his that a person can be replaced by his counter self by these beings if needs be.”
“You wouldn't mind if I smoked?” I blurted out, wishing I hadn't, maybe it would spoil this flow of conversation and I would lose this moment forever. She gave me a quizzical look, “Why would I mind? I would like a puff or two though..Anyhow I haven't told you my name, I am Anita Dey. I am a student of English Lit at Presidency, and also the editor of the college newsletter.” The last bit was said with a bit of flourish and a glint in the eye, that was unbearably adorable. I took out a cigarette from my left pocket, lit it and took in the smoke to clear my head.
“Yes, this was something which caught my attention as well...especially when he decided to allude to Krishna and his two lives. One as a young boy at Gokul, frivolous and youthful, with not a care in the world..” I spoke reflectively, almost to myself.
“Ah yes...and how on his way to Mathura his real home and kingdom, he fell sick, they camped for the night...and the invisible beings built him an air balloon inside his tent, to float his present self away...and he became the capable politician, a responsible shrewd king...adviser to Arjun..playing an important part in the epic battle, later in his life...That's why his death is also shrouded in mystery...” She paused for breath, maybe to collect her thoughts as well. I had almost finished my cigarette.  “I could almost feel her pain you know, when Radha came to see him in Mathura and she hardly knew him...she said 'Ey toh shey noi..', such simple words yet such deep pain...” She shook her head sadly.
“It's just a story..” I tried to pacify her, feeling a rush of sympathy for her young naiveté. She looked a little annoyed. “What if it's not just a story? What if whatever we have read or heard about as children or even now...what we so blindly put off as fiction...what if they were true?”
“We wouldn't run out stories then would we, if strange things keep happening to us?” I said in a attempt to lighten her mood. She giggled, and then gasped. “It's been two hours now? I wonder if he would come out or not?” I looked at the door, silent and formidable, his slippers were placed on the mat...which could only mean he must be inside....but the room was so quiet, hardly a rustle of fabric against a body....
“Should we knock? What happened to the man who had let us in?” I got up. She looked at me puzzled, “What man?”. I was having the same queasy feeling I had when I first saw the house. “I had to let myself in, I tried knocking, there was no reply, but I could hear someone moving inside ...So I decided to wait.” She trailed off, her face echoing my misgivings. I walked to the door, and knocked at it, at first tentatively then firmly. There was no reply of any kind. He could be in great trouble, some sort of stroke or heart attack, but why was everything so quiet? Wouldn't a man cry out on pain if he has a stroke or a heart attack? Anita had joined me as well, we were banging at the door, frantically trying to elicit a response from anyone inside or outside the room. The door finally gave in, we were hurled forward with the impact. There was a bed, unmade and slept in, a mosquito net thrown on the rust coloured floor. A writing table, chain and a wooden almirah. There were bits and papers everywhere, but there was no sign of A. I looked at his slippers in an insane hope, they looked quite abandoned too. Had we interrupted the little beings in their work?

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