Monday, September 14, 2015
Damsel was tired of being in distress. How tedious! Sure, the knights sometimes turned out to be truly handsome and noble but most of the times they tended to be delusional fools.
There had to be a better profession than this. She knocked on the page. The writer looked askance at her.
"I don't want to be distressed anymore. It is terribly boring and to say nothing of the insipidity."
The writer considered the reply. "Don't you like how these heroes rush to save you, slaying dragons and whatnot to lay their hearts and lives at your feet?"
"No. And you know it as well as I that they don't do it for me. Find me an alternative or I walk out of these pages."
The writer sank back exhausted. The new story had knights, swashbuckling action, black magic and a happily ever after. With one difference. The princess held a sword.
After signing the tale with a flourish, the writer smiled in triumph. The name gleamed blood red, matching the liquid congealing some distance away from the desk.
'Damsel,' the beautiful signature read.
Saturday, August 8, 2015
The villagers affectionately called her the Witch. I call her my ghost. Who am I kidding? I can no longer call her that. But I get ahead of myself. I should start at the start. That is the way she liked it. Still likes it, I hope.
I first met her nearly two decades ago. I was twenty one and was visiting my grandparents at their ancestral village. Though they often stayed with my parents, I had never been to their house. I was excited. Mixed with the anticipation was also the city lad's readiness to patronize the villagers. I was looking forward to being marvelled at for my enlightening thoughts.
When the village turned out to be quite developed, educated and modern, I was disappointed. Here I was, all ready to show off and there was hardly anyone to impress!
Then they told me about the Witch. My heart crowed with glee. But it would have seemed unseemly to jump in delight at the opportunity to show these simple folks, the errors of their ways. I assumed a restrained mien.
"A Witch?" I twisted my head to look at my grandmother who was busy in the kitchen. "Grandma! You never told me about this. That people here believe in witches. In this day and this age, no less."
I stared in pompous indignation at the old man who had come to meet my grandmother's grandson. They were childhood friends, I was told.
"Really?" The old man grinned. "We should not believe in witches? Do tell."
I frowned. Was the old man making fun of me?
My grandmother came to my rescue. "Oh, hush. Don't tease the darling child," she admonished her friend, before turning to me. "Of course, we don't believe in witches, you idiot. What kind of old fashioned, illiterate people you take us to be! She is not a real witch, you know."
Slowly, I gathered the story. The Witch was a twenty year old blind girl who lived in a big mansion on the outskirts of the village. She was the only daughter of the local gentry, who were believed to have been royalty in the distant past. Her parents had died in an accident two years ago. And it was during this time, she had acquired the name.
The girl now lived alone in the big house. Her parents had left her enough money to free her of the worries about earning a livelihood. She had closed most of the house and used only a bedroom, a small library and a sitting room. She did not have any regular servants but had two locals who cleaned her place and did the shopping for her once a week. The family lawyer sent her money every month to meet her needs. She rarely left the house and its grounds. Had never been even outside the village, if word was to be believed.
"But how does she manage?" I asked. "On a day to day basis, I mean? What does she do with herself?"
"Ah," said the old man. "That is where the magic lies."
When I seemed even more befuddled, he promised to take me to meet her on the morrow. "But on one condition," he warned. "You must not treat her like an oddity or talk to her in those condescending and pitying tones people reserved for those they see as 'less'."
The next day, I went to meet her with my grandmother's friend. The house where she lived was shaded from the rest of the village by a thick grove of mango trees. It being a hot summer day, the air was laden with a delicious, juicy sweetness that tempted me to pluck one of those ripe fruits.
The house itself was quite grand, though not as much as it must have been a hundred years ago, I suspected. It was maintained just enough to remind the onlooker of its past grandeur. Now it looked like a retired king, who had settled gracefully into being a benign grandfather.
She was waiting for us in the sitting room, the old man having informed her of the visit in advance. As we entered the room, she turned from the window where she had been standing. And looked right at me.
"Hello," she said. I was pretty sure that she was addressing me since her eyes gently were boring into mine. She was blind, wasn't she?
I recovered enough in a few seconds to reply. "Hello."
I took in her appearance. She was simply and elegantly dressed in contrasts - pastels and bold, gorgeous crimson, a seam hugging a curve here and the rest falling in soft, loose folds. She was tall and coltish, yet held herself with the grace of a more mature woman. Her hair was tied back in a loose ponytail; her slender hand wore no rings and rested on the windowsill.
Finally, I brought my eyes up to look into the pair that was supposed to be blind. They were shaped exotically, with a catlike uptilt at the corners. The pupils were dark but the irises were just a shade lighter. The difference was almost imperceptible; I think it was the way, the light from the window slanted across her eyes that allowed me to spot this - because I have never seen it again in all the years between then and now.
Disconcerted a little and propelled by the not so gentle poke in my ribs, I walked further into the room, with my hand outstretched.
And it was then that I noticed it. It sat quietly, still as a pebble on her right shoulder, with its head almost hidden behind her ear.
It was a Sparrow.
But its eyes were focussed on mine like the girl’s. They looked sentient, almost human in their intensity. It was eerie.
I jerked my gaze from the bird to the girl. She was smiling and had grasped my hand.
“Welcome to my home,” she said. Her voice was clear, confident, unaccented. It was as if she had learnt the language from someone who had invented it.
I shook my head. I was growing addled. It was all this talk of magic and witched which was influencing me.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Your home and the village are lovely. My grandparents often talked about it but this is the first time I have managed to come here.”
Over the next couple of hours, she took us on a tour of the house, served delicious, spicy tea and told me all about the history of her family. And all of this without stumbling once as she navigated without assistance around the house. When my grandmother’s friend was not looking, I surreptitiously waved my hands in front of her eyes to check if she was truly blind.
The Sparrow which had not left its perch on her shoulder all this while, had just before flown to window sill to catch the last orange rays on its homely brown wings.
The girl did not react to my waving hand. She was truly blind.
Once I accepted that, I relaxed and began to enjoy her company. She was actually quite talkative and vivacious. I was beginning to see the magic – in the way she handled herself, ‘saw’ the world around her.
“What do you do all day long? Don’t you get bored?” It was a rather intrusive question and the old man looked daggers at me. But I was curious. My grandmother often warned me against it.
She shrugged. “Not really. I have all these stories.” She waved her hand at the books lining the walls of the room.
“Are they…” I trailed off. This was a breach even my impudence would not allow.
“In Braille? No. None of them are. But I can still know them, can’t I?” Her smile was mischievous while the bird’s steady gaze assessed me.
I had no reply.
“You are a curious little cat, aren’t you?” she teased a little later, with the ease of an old acquaintance. “What is it that you want to do? Or, do you have a treasure to live upon for your entire life?”
I was a little taken aback by the way the tables had turned upon me. But I had to admit, it was only fair that I answered her. “Haven’t really decided,” I hedged. “May be a writer.”
As soon as the last words left my mouth, I swear, an unholy gleam came into both their eyes.
“Really? Maybe, we can swap stories this summer. Be each other’s Schehezerade,” she spoke with a smile. I got a feeling that somehow this was extremely important to her.
When her shoulders relaxed, I noticed that in the last few minutes, she had been sitting almost at the edge of her seat.
Puzzled, I was about to remark, when the old man (whom I had completely forgotten) cleared his throat. “I think it is time to go.”
We left a few minutes later after I promised to visit her every evening for the rest of my holidays.
On our way back to my grandmother’s house, I asked my grandmother’s friend about the bird. “How old is that bird of hers?”
“What bird? She does not have any.”
“But there was a Sparrow with her. Didn’t you see it?”
When I look back now, I realize how curious that summer was, how pivotal. Life changing. A rather misused phrase that is very apt.
True to her word, she became Schehezerade. Every evening, she told me a story. Some days, it was simple and childlike. On other days, it was full of drama and grandeur and world shaking events. Then there were times, when she spun a microcosm so detailed, that I could see it assemble bit by miniscule bit on my palm.
And never did she refer to a book. She poured the words out in a steady waterfall, as if there were pages turning in her head. These were stories never heard before. I had checked. They were original. When I asked her how she knew places as far flung as Delhi, Rome and Sahara the way she did, she winked.
She was an enigma. I was beginning to accept that she was a Witch.
All those evenings, the Sparrow sat still on her shoulder, with only its eyes mobile, following every movement, every breeze, every light, drinking in the details of all that happened around it. While it had unnerved me initially, slowly I grew accustomed to it as her – her pet. There was no other way to describe that relationship.
Eventually, my vacation drew to a close. While she had narrated a new tale every twilight for nearly two months, my own imagination had remained arid. I had never really tried writing. It was just a vague idea that I had in my head. I believed that because I loved stories, writing them would be easy. For the first time in my life, I understood how difficult it was.
I did think about cheating, telling her a story from some obscure book. She was blind. She was unlikely to have known it. Better sense prevailed. I would like to claim that it was because of my sense of honour but in truth I feared that she would know the fraud in an instant. And her opinion of me did matter.
On my last evening in the village, she told me her most intricate story yet set in a war ravaged country. By the time she finished, it was quite late. She invited me to stay the night.
I accepted. I was given a pillow and a blanket to make myself comfortable on the sofa. She bade me goodnight and left with the Sparrow sitting on her shoulder.
Thirty minutes later, I went towards the kitchen in search of water. On the way, I passed her bedroom. The door was slightly ajar and through the gap, I could see her form silhouetted against the window. Her hands were cupped delicately in front of her, as if she held something precious.
I softly pushed the door further open, shamelessly spying on her.
She raised her cupped hands to her lips, kissed them and flung them outwards towards the window. The sparrow shot towards the sky.
She stood still for a second, before turning towards her bed, with her arms extended, hands groping for support like any other blind person. In my eyes, the gesture seemed foreign. She stumbled several times before flopping on her bed.
I eased back from my position quietly.
Next morning, the Sparrow was back on its favourite perch. I had questions galore but for once I couldn’t ask them. I decided not to broach the topic. What could I have said anyway?
When I was leaving, she took my hand. “When you first came here, you said that you wanted to be a writer,” she paused. I was confused. Where was she going with this? She took a breath of resolve before continuing. “But I don’t think you have any stories in you.” A pause again. The Sparrow measured me with cool eyes. I felt an anticipation, as if something momentous was about to happen. “I, on the other hand, am full of tales. I have told you so many of them this past summer. Only you have heard them. That hurts me in ways that I cannot even describe.” Another breath.
She spoke again. “I am unable to write. My lack of vision will not let me. So, I want to propose something to you. I want you to write my stories. The words will be mine, the characters from my dreams but you will be the author. I will never claim them. It is enough that they are heard.”
I was stunned. My brain froze momentarily before racing, a train without brakes. It was a dream. I was being offered glory without the guts. I was so tempted.
“Why?” I had to ask.
She released my hand, not answering immediately. “Do you know why a woman breastfeeds her baby? True, it is the best food for her newborn child. She does love her child, right? But do you know that it is also a physical necessity for her? Holding that precious milk inside hurts her. She ‘needs’ to feed the baby. She does not expect any reward for it. She just has to. It is an instinct, an ache. I feel the same about my stories.”
I became a celebrated, feted author. The Witch became my Ghost. She told the stories. I wrote them. She crafted the words. I printed them. It won me many awards, critical acclaim and so many admirers, fans. Some claimed that I was one of the greatest writers of this century. And she – she remained in the shadows. Until last year.
Our usual modus operandi was elegant in its simplicity. Once every year, I went to my grandparents’village. It was where ‘my muse’ visited me. The press called the village my ‘writing room’.
I spent two months’ worth of evenings with her, feverishly typing every accent, every comma, the curve of each sentence and the lilt of every fresh chapter. Then I returned to the city and sent the manuscript to the publisher.
Last year, it changed. When I arrived at her doorstep for our annual ritual. I found the door locked. I knocked. She did not open it. Just asked me to go away.
This continued for nearly a fortnight. I grew anxious. This would not do. I had already received and spent a large advance for this book she was yet to narrate. It was due in little more than a month!
On the fourteenth day, I decided I’d had enough. She could not use and discard me like this, without an explanation. I knew no other existence, no other skill, no other living, except this charade.
When my knocks elicited the usual refrain, I went around the house. I found the window where she had stood that first time. It was open. With a grunt, I hoisted myself in.
The house was musty, a film of dust settled on the very air. I found her in the bedroom. She lay across it, with the Sparrow tucked against her bosom. Her fingers lightly caressed the bird. Her lips moved fervently in some silent rhythmic prayer. Her eyes were closed. Tears streaked her cheeks.
When I called her name, she opened her eyes slowly. And for the first time, they were unseeing. Blind.
“My Sparrow is dying,” she whispered.
“I am sorry.” I was impatient, brusque, eager to get back to the book. “It must be really old. I think we should give it a grand burial.”
“No!” Her voice dripped horror. She sat up straight. The bird lolled dead on her bed.
A heart rending scream echoed in the house. She fell from the bed, curled into herself, clawing her eyes. “I am blind! I am blind!”
Foreboding crept into my blood, as I recalled the night I had spied on her and seen the bird fly away, only to return next day.
“What do you mean?” Anger and fear made my voice harsh.
She stopped sobbing, rising to her feet. I was standing on the other side of the bed. She, of a gait so graceful that people with vision could never match, faltered, slipped, groped her way to where I stood. But she faced away from me. I suspected it was not intentional.
I turned her around. Her eyes were dark, their luminosity extinguished. “What do you mean?” I urged.
“My Sparrow,” she halted on a sob. “She, she…” Words failed her for the first time in two decades, as she shattered into a heap.
I understood. She was a Witch. The Sparrow was not her pet. It was her Vision. Her Imagination.
There would be no more stories. And she would need a walking stick.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
He had shot his mother. He was four years old. That was his first memory.
She survived. His mother. In fact there was little more than a graze. No scar remained an year later. No. That would be incorrect. No scar that marked her flesh remained.....
The writer scratched the last line. It was too melodramatic. He abhorred excess in his writing. And more so in his own story.
But the sentiment that he had expressed was true enough. Yet, he felt....bored.
Strange, that sensation. He had written so many stories but his own surpassed the ones born in his imagination. He had won fame for his stories. His talent had a role but his allure as the guy who had shot his mother as a child, drew even the disinterested.
So, it had seemed only fitting that he should tell his story this time. The true story. Or, at least as true as he remembered.
He got up from the hard chair he had been given. It must be the chair that was blocking his flow. And the table - it was atrocious. He hated it. How was he supposed to write his most important story if the ambience was not right?
He let out a growl of frustration as he paced the room. But ambience or not, he had to finish this story else it would haunt him forever.
He tried again.
"I shot my mother. The resounding gunshot is my first memory. Even before I remember remembering my mother, I recall the report of the gun. it was only as she was falling that her face came into focus. And for the rest of my life, the word 'mother' and its infinite forms brought to my mind, a face contorted in disbelief and horror but oddly fearless. A pretty face that looked ugly in the chaos that followed.
And that is when my story began.
I was four years old. My mother survived. That is what she was good at. Survival. She had been a top model before she met and married my dad. The night I'd shot her, she had been seducing a man. I don't know who the man actually was even today. But the funniest thing is that I never got to know what had led to that shot.
At first, it was because they wanted to shield me and later, I guess, no one actually remembered. Though the only person who could have really revealed it was my mother.
'But honey, I don't remember. It was just an accident. I have never held you responsible,' she'd say and then smile at me beatifically. She definitely didn't remember. I was sure.
Not that people were not curious. As I started becoming famous for my stories, people took great pleasure in trying to unlock that one door.
Unfortunately for them that key seemed to have been forever lost.
Especially now. When my mother is truly and finally dead...."
The writer’s thoughts trailed off. This was turning out to be more and more difficult. And he was running out of time.
He resumed writing.
“My father was a cop. A top cop, as some would say. He had met my mother at some charity function and the two had fallen hard for each other.
Growing up, I was equal parts fascinated and repulsed by their relationship. There was so madly in love that it was embarrassing at times to be in the same room as them, even if they were sitting ten feet apart. It was saccharine sweet and gross at the same time.
Yet there was always a tension, a mistrust that underpinned their life together. When I grew older, I realized that it was due to their inability to stay faithful to each other. They loved crazily but they were too restless to find that stillness that grounds a relationship.
They would invariably have affairs outside marriage, fight passionately about them and then make up with equal passion. It was quite exhausting, staying in the same house as them. And they did live together, their marriage in some ways truer than many others I have known, until the death of my father six months ago. He died of a heart attack.
My mother was devastated, unable to process even her daily life. She was still a very beautiful woman, with many men willing to help her overcome her grief. But she was not interested any longer. It was as if all her affairs had been a staring match with the man she loved, just to see who would blink first.
Since she no longer cared about her surroundings, the task of sorting and taking care of my father’s things fell to me. It was as I was going through his desk that I came across a yellowing envelope, addressed to no one. It was sealed. When I held it up against the light, I could see the outlines of a letter inside.
I was curious. In usual circumstances, I would have considered it impolite to open the envelope. But my father was dead and my mother was in no condition to be of any help; I tore it open.”
The writer paused. His fingers had begun to quiver a little. He took a sip of water from the glass that they’d left him. It tasted bitter. But maybe the water held no bitterness; his memories were covered with a patina of rusted iron. Like blood gone stale.
He recalled how everyone had tried to treat him like a regular kid, had taken extra care to do so, for years after the shot. And somehow that had kept the sound of the shot fresher in his years.
He would have preferred that somebody told him what’d actually happened that night.
Through his early years as a writer, several journalists had tried to solve the mystery. With their innate distrust of celebrity, they assumed that he had been hiding something, that there was a sordid tale that deserved to be exposed. But they all failed. Even the most cynical ones. At that time, he’d actually been disappointed. He’d wished that someone would tell him the truth. He wasn’t miserable but his innate curiosity had kept him awake many nights.
The writer shook his head and forced himself to concentrate. He picked up the pen again.
“It was a letter addressed to me.
‘My dear son’, it began. ‘I am writing this to you, knowing that I will never have the courage to actually give it to you.
You are only five years old now. Perhaps too young to understand what I am writing here. But one day, when you become a man, even then – and especially then – I would not be able to let you read these lines.
You did not shoot your mother.’”
The writer’s pen faltered for a moment before resolutely carrying on.
“’You did not shoot your mother.
That evening nearly an year ago, I had been on night duty. A prominent politician had been assassinated and there was mayhem in the city. I was not expected to be at home that night.
Before I write any further, I must confess that both your mother and I have been unfaithful to each other. Many times. And maybe we would continue to do this. But make no mistake. We love each other more than anyone else. Even you.
Back to that evening. While on duty, I had been hit on the head by a stone thrown by someone in an unruly crowd rioting in the city. I was attended to by the doctors and then ordered home.
I returned home around ten. I let myself in. The lights in the living room were on but it was quiet. I walked down the corridor and reached the room. I noticed you first, playing in front of the muted television. And then I saw your mother kissing a man – someone I did not know – on the sofa.
Even though we had always been aware – indeed confronted each other – of our infidelities, we had never walked in on each other like this.
They were so engrossed in each other that they did not even notice this.
I was furious and eerily calm. I walked upstairs to our bedroom. I opened the bedside drawer and took out my personal revolver. I went back to the living room, called your mother’s name.
She jerked upright and stood to face the gun I’d trained on her. The man took a look at my face and scrambled. I never saw him again, even when the story hit the streets.
I fired but your mother turned the last moment. The bullet grazed her arm.
You did not cry. Just watched her as she fell with a thud. And that brought me out of my stupor. I rushed to her, whispering my regret and my love, again and again.
She brushed me off. Cool and composed, she told me that she loved me. And then declared that we needed a cover story.
You can guess what the cover story was. I am a good cop, a great cop, in fact. I knew how to handle the evidence and steer the story in the direction we wanted.
You, my innocent son, have been turned guilty by your own parents. But I am not sorry about it.
We love each other – your mother and I – more,
My eyes were dry when I reached the end. I just sat in his chair, my mind consciously blank. And then suddenly, hell broke loose in my head. All the thoughts whooshed back in a chaos that defied words. But just as suddenly, they were gone, leaving a clear, single thought in my mind. It was that simple, apparently.
I took a deep breath, went to my room and retrieved the gun that I kept in my night stand. It was an exact replica of the one that had become my first memory.
I went in search of my mother….”
The door of the cell slammed open. “It’s time”, the guard said in bad parody of an awful movie scene. The writer looked at his nearly complete story with regret, then shrugged it off to walk to the noose that they had made for him.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Bluestocking's Note: To read the story from start to end, click here. This is the final installment.
The boy found her at quarter to six, in a musty room of the ugly, solid building that was the government school.
She was at the desk, with a pile of notebooks and an even bigger one on the table. A pen – one of those that had two different coloured tips at two ends, red and blue – dangled between her fingers. She was humming to herself.
It was dark without and the single light bulb far above her head was lit. But the light had to travel such a long distance that it gave up midway. So, she practically sat in a pool of semi darkness, with yellow light hovering over her, like some distant sun.
He knocked timidly.
“You are early”, she said, without moving her head. “Come in and sit.” Her voice was brisk but not entirely unkind.
The boy walked into the room and stood in front of her.
“You are blocking my light. Move. Go and sit.”
The boy’s face broke into a half-smile as he looked up at the light high above her.
Gathering his courage, he mumbled, “I am here.”
“So I can see. Give me a few minutes of peace. Go, sit. Now.”
Wearily, he shuffled to the nearest chair and sat down, with his eyes firmly fixed on the ground.
He was here purely out of curiosity. And out of a driving need for respite from his own torturous helplessness.
“Why do you want to save that building?”
Her blunt question caught him by surprise. His helplessness returned with a rush that was almost violent. He jerked a little but did not look up. His lips compressed into a thin line. His jaws clenched with the effort it took to not weep like the child he had left behind.
She waited patiently. For one whole minute. “Fine. I’ll leave then.” She gathered her load of notebooks, hefted them in one hand and with the other, slung a battered handbag on her shoulder. She had almost reached the door, when his own inadvertent voice pierced his angry stupor.
“She calls me.” He still did not look up.
“Who calls you?” He looked up now to find her next to him, kneeling on the ground.
“She…” he had no words that could explain. Not any longer. “She just does. And I can’t save her!”
The boy and the woman looked at each other. They were probably trying to say something. Silently. Or may be not. May be they were just struck dumb.
The next day, the woman was back at the site. This time, there was a man with her. To the boy’s young eyes, the man was old but younger than the woman. He was lean and somehow seemed very crisp, despite his limp, too big clothes. There was a sharpness about his eyes that undid his entire pretense of being shabby.
The woman caught the boy’s eyes and beckoned him. The pair had been standing at the entrance of the building, with the now worn notice flapping tiredly in the heat.
When the boy reached the building, the pair simply turned and walked into the building. The boy took it as an invitation to enter as well. He had worshipped, adored her for so long but never had the right to look inside her. And here he was, at last, walking into her.
But it was not a pretty sight inside. The boy had been prepared for that. Cobwebs hanging from dark corners, cracked stairs, tangle of ugly, dusty, exposed electrical wires, the stale smell of neglect. He tried hard to paint her as should be. She could be glorious. Must have been once. He had to believe that or his resolve would begin to waver. And then what would he be left with?
Ahead of him, the man and woman had climbed the stairs to the first floor. The cubbyholes in which entire families had once lived, were now empty. They walked into one of them, unchallenged, though a few workers squatting in one corner of the floor, followed them with watchful eyes.
The boy had now caught up with the older pair, who were examining somewhere close to the window in the far wall. The boy took note of the room. An entire and possibly large family must have lived here. That did not surprise him. That is how his own family lived back in the village.
One wall was almost entire black from smoke. Another had a patch of lighter, cleaner, electric blue oil paint as compared to the rest of the peeling, dirty wall. Clearly, some kind of furniture had occupied that space. But frankly, it was all hideous. Where was the beauty, he knew, his sweetheart possessed? It had to be here. Somewhere. Anywhere.
The boy began to feel a little frantic, desperate and claustrophobic.
The man called him to the far wall, he had been inspecting with the woman.
When the boy reached them, the man pointed at something close to the perfunctory, boarded window.
“You see this here,” the man said. “It was once a beautiful, latticed window. See these criss-crossing lines. These must have taken a great amount of skill once. Some fool broke the delicacy and put up this monstrosity in its place.” With these words, the man spun on his heels and left the room.
The boy stood there, entranced. With wondrous reverence, he traced the fragile lines of the lattice. Then he spread out his palm. The filtered sunlight created shadowed lines over the lines etched into his hand.
For the next few days, the boy did not hear from the supervisor’s wife. On the fifth day after his short venture inside the building, the woman returned with the same man. But this time, an elderly man accompanied them. He looked familiar to the boy. When the woman called the boy to her side, he recognized the elderly man. He was one of the officials – the one with a bigger desk – who had shooed him away from the municipal corporation.
The two men were talking animatedly.
“This can’t be possibly true. Again”, the official was saying.
“It is a fact. Something that I can prove”, the man replied. “You have to stop the destruction of a heritage site. It was….”
The boy’s heart went into an overdrive. He missed out the rest of the conversation. By the time, he realized that. The official was ready to leave.
“I cannot do anything.” The elderly official was irate. “The transaction is completely legal. The government cannot do anything unless you can prove what you are saying is true. You are making quite a habit of this, I must say. I suggest you approach the courts once again. Like the last time you made similar claims.” With these parting words, the official left.
“And we will do exactly that. Just like last time”, the man shot back.
The boy looked hopefully at the faces of the older pair, who were now completely ignoring him, so engrossed were they in their quiet discussion. But the suspense was too great for the boy. He finally interjected. “But what does this mean? Will she live?”
The man looked the boy in the eye. “I think she will have a reprieve. At the very least. And then who knows? Now, get back to work.”
When the boy left, happy, assured and hopeful, the man winked at the woman and gave her a cheeky grin.
The building did get a reprieve. In fact, the reprieve was longer than the time boy actually spent in the city finally. It still stands, equally dilapidated, still beautiful in some shy, dank, unexpected corners.
I was first told about it, when I was a child. My grandmother had once told me about the love a boy had for an old, decrepit building. And then one day, she had taken me for a visit.
“She still waits for him”, she had said. “That is why she does not collapse on herself.”
“Why doesn’t he return?” I had asked with the solemn curiosity of a five year old.
My grandmother did not answer. Not that time. Not ever. She simply sighed, with an unreadable expression on her face. An expression that I deciphered many, many years later.
It was the expression of sorrow’s acceptance, a content resignation and an infinitesimal twinge of regret. For love stories that remain incomplete.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Bluestocking's Note: To read the story so far altogether, click here. This is the second last installment. The fourth would be the last.
He ran back to his supervisor. The supervisor was a busy but kindly man, who listened to what the boy had to say with an indulgent smile. And then he patted him on the head and gently asked him to get back to work.
The rest of the day, the boy worked and worked but his mind was awhirl. He couldn’t let this happen. This was not right. Throughout the day, he saw the building’s residents move from outrage to indignation and finally to a quiet resignation. He didn’t understand that. The building was their home. How could they not fight for her? He saw a few families move out that very evening. They had no ties to her beyond the material. But he was young enough to believe that his own soul was interred there. Quite like the king in the stories whose life lived inside some exotic parrot.
Over the next week, the boy tried speaking to many people – the important man who was the architect for the mall, the contractor who would oversee the demolition, the building’s remaining residents, his own supervisor again and even the babus in the municipal corporation. He was told by someone that only the corporation could help and stop this brutality. Some of these people heard him out. Few shooed him away. A couple of threatened him to mind his own business. But no one helped him. No one understood when he tried to explain to them in words that he did not have about how beautiful she was. That she was precious and needed to be revered, not demolished.
By now, the building was almost desolate, with nearly all residents having moved out. All those who had lived here had merely rented her. And the invisible one who had owned her had sold her.
The boy alternated between despair and grim determination. Days just kept sneaking past – thieves of Time. Workers had started arriving and pitching temporary lodging there. The destruction was merely days away.
One day, almost two weeks later, the supervisor summoned him.
The boy had been brooding, growing desperate and angry. He was on that delicate precipice which hardens one into a bitter cynic. He wasn’t a cynic. Just yet.
When the boy reached the supervisor’s dirty, red plastic desk positioned under a tree to provide a modicum of respite from the brutal sun, he found a woman sitting next to the older man. She looked to be about his mother’s age. That made her old, though she was not actually more than forty. She was dressed in an inexpensive but pretty cotton sari. But it was her hair that caught his attention. It was – weird. Tied in a tight plait, it was completely black at the top, close to her scalp then gradually faded and finally blinding white at the tips. It was as if the colours had tried to flow from the roots to the tip but got tired of the effort and slowly leached out of the strands. The boy could see that happening in continuous waves.
She was talking in quiet and harsh tones to the supervisor. She kept on pushing her red wired spectacles up the bridge of her perspiring nose. The boy was suddenly afraid of her. But the fear was not unpleasant.
The supervisor looked up. “Ah. There you are.”
The boy said nothing. Just looked at him. And then away.
“This is my wife”, the supervisor waved a hand in the general direction of the woman. “She is a History teacher. In my locality’s government school.”
The woman was silently glaring at the boy. He shuffled his feet, raised his eyes to her face and then quickly cast his eyes down. It had been a hotter than usual day and he had been sweating like a pig.
But there was a chill in his belly.
“What is your name?” she asked. Teacher to new student. Except he was not.
“Nandu”, he whispered to himself, the realized that she hadn’t heard him. “Nandu.” Louder this time. Almost a shout.
“Have you ever been to school? How old are you, anyway?”
He looked askance at the supervisor. The man turned away his head and disowned the boy.
He was now finally alone. On his own. Except that the woman was fiercely appraising him, as she waited for his answer in stillness.
“Cat got your tongue, boy?” Her tone was acerbic. A brisk lash. “Well, then. I will do the talking. Finish your work here. You get off at six, right? Come see me at my school at seven in the evening.” She reeled off the address. It was not very far. “I have work for you.”
He mumbled a response.
“What?” she demanded.
“I won’t. Don’t need your work”, he repeated himself, in an unintentionally falsetto voice, like he had reverted to being a five year old child.
“Shut up”, she said mildly, almost gently this time. “See that he is there”, she ordered her husband and creaked away from the desk, in the direction of the school.