This is a blog about writing. Mostly short fiction. And occasional personal rant once in a while, if I may. Feel free to make your comments and feel sane again.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mahendra’s Last Story

Mahendra arrived at the decision in the dead of a chilled December night.

He had graduated with a degree in comparative literature. The college admission was a sick, and rather expensive joke; he never got tired of telling his friends. Four years at the university couldn’t teach him anything, but it opened doors of libraries for him. He focused on a singular mission in life and lived by the simple rule: read and write. He tried writing poetry first and switched over to short stories. A tiny book on numerology convinced him that number eight would play a significant role in his life. It was a smooth ride from the day his first story named ‘Eight’ found a willing magazine editor. By the time he met his future wife, Mahendra had published dozens of stories on subject ranging from war to psychopaths to unrequited love to comedy of social climbers to petty crimes. 

He knew right from the beginning that the modest fame and personal satisfaction came at a terrible price. One of his college mates, who had gone into ship breaking business, now flew in private jets and hobnobbed with big and mighty, while Mahendra drove a secondhand scooter and lived in a derelict rented house. A gynecologist friend earned ten times more than him and changed his cars every year. But Mahendra had reconciled to the fact: writers rarely made big money. Freedom to follow my creative impulse is my real reward, he always reminded himself. He would never drive a Jaguar XKE, or live in a three-bed room penthouse in the fashionable part of town, he was sure. His kids wouldn’t go to fancy public schools. His wife could only dream about microwave and walk-in size refrigerator. Every summer, the family would look at the travel brochures showing snow covered log cabins at st. Mortiz or heavenly beaches of Seychelles.

Mahendra crossed his forties and felt the dark void after he sent out his 701st story. He ignored this strange mental blankness for some time. His non-productive gap grew from days to weeks to months. Every few days he sat down in front of his old computer, wrote a few indifferent pages, and stood up in disgust. He would read what he had written and curse bitterly: "Is this me? Am I reduced to this kind of crap?” 

Another birthday bypassed him. 

His editor friend suggested the idea of a break in routine: “A complete change of surrounding will put you back in circulation.” 

Mahendra booked his ticket in hurry, and went off to a nearby hill station to relax. But his gift of writing, his docile muse, his act of merciless self-discipline, that white-hot inspiration, the smooth flow of effortless words, all that he had taken for granted for so many years, had vanished. A quiet panic started to build inside his slight frame. He began to see what greatest of writers feared the most: he had written himself dry to the point of no return. 

He remembered the first book he read and enjoyed. He remembered one-legged John Silver from The Treasure Island, and tried white rum as the last desperate attempt to drown his private demon. Within a week, he had to be hospitalized. “You have no enzymes to digest alcohol,” the doctor announced after looking at the lab report. His wife stood by his bedside all the time; his friends, his relatives, and well wishers came over to consol him. Mahendra recovered from the prolonged illness but he knew that he was truly alone in this world now. 

Questions whirled inside his shrinking head: Is this why Hemmingway slashed his wrist and put a full stop on his life? Or did he shot himself? Is this how Raymond Chandler - his favorite crime writer fell from grace? What was that rumor about James Joyce pushing his wife to have an affair to revive himself? 

He solemnly assured his dutiful wife and requested to be left alone. She took the kids along and decided to stay with her parents for a few days. 

Now, he decided, was the time to pull down the final curtain. “I am my most desperate character,” he mumbled and went out to buy a bottle of rat poison.

He had read enough of ‘Forensic procedures for Writers’ to make an embarrassing mistake. He made a generous cheese sandwich and sat down to relish his last dinner at his writing desk. A full stomach with unsaturated fat also ruled out the possibility of vomiting the poison.

To add a final macabre touch to his plight, he wrote furiously for a few minutes, and hit the ‘send’ button. Task over, he happily tilted the brown bottle till nothing was left inside. 


Thursday, May 27, 2010

One Hot Afternoon Somewhere in Western India

An April is not a season to fall in love out here. The thin silver column of mercury climbs beyond forty degrees in the barometer and stay there during the day and the better part of the night. The ceiling fans are mere formality because the air they fling is hotter than furnace’s fumes. All air coolers including the hi-tech ones make the rooms humid: you breathe in the wet air, cough, sneeze, or suffocate. Most people cannot afford the ACs. Half of the ACs in the town breaks down during this season any way. Some say, it is easier to buy a new AC than to get some one to repair a conked one. That is where I come in. I repair ACs.

I am listed in the local hallow-yellow book. I also make do as a plumber, if a repair job includes the replacements and the client is distressed enough to overlook a few things. For a commission, I sometime help find accommodation for the people who are new in this town. Basically, I do any business as long as I can hustle it with a phone. One thing I don’t do is to hire other people to do my jobs. Also, I don’t get hired by the people I don’t like. The other day I went for a small repair job at a fifty roomer glitzy hotel. They were angling to get me on full time basis but I am not the type to punch a timer at 9.30 a.m. sharp. They needed a dog-type. I am a cat-type.

My phone rang when I was dreaming about getting shipwrecked on an island made of cottage cheese, where the potato chips grow on maintenance free trees and the sea of fine Scotch surround the cheese land. It could be near the South Pole or the North Pole, so that I don’t have to worry about fresh ice all the time. I still hadn’t solved the soda angle, I made a mental note. What about the hangovers? But the phone was still ringing. 

I picked up the phone with a pair of pliers on twenty sixth ring, or twenty seventh, or thirty second, whatever, I am not a math man.

“Hallo,” I spoke in Clint Eastwood’s deep timber.

“I have a broken AC duct here. You just bring a new duct. Take down the address!” Some queen of England demanded.

“Let me check things out myself first. What if there is Freon leakage?” This one can befuddle even a nuclear scientist and give the repairer the strategic advantage.

“It is nothing. You just clean up the air passage and fit in a new water duct. If you can’t make it in an hour don’t bother, I have to go out.”

“Sure sure,” I muttered my standard survival line. 

I didn’t like the snooty tone of the caller but I liked her voice, probably young, there were some fresh tartly mangoes in that voice. Worth a pickle. Besides, what kind of face, features and figures go with that voice? I am curious by nature. I like people with minor imperfections, brusque tone in her case. Maybe, it is the heat in the air and the insecticides in the wheat that does this temper trick, I thought charitably.

Back to business, I scribbled her address and stuffed the foldable job book in my shirt pocket, along with an electric tester, my tobacco pouch, a wet-lime tube and couples of tooth picks. I murmured the address again: one of the bungalows out of town, at least forty minutes drive if my scooter cooperated. 

I removed the phone from the hook and picked up my once-white cricket cap, scooter keys and sunglasses. As usual, the elevator was out of order. Lugging a tool bag is a kind of exercise, the sweat helps you drench out the poisons, so says the diabetic columnist in the health pages. So I ran down the thirty steps and walked into the parking area. My fingernails, the angle of my cap, air pressure in tires and petrol gauge I always check no matter who has called or where I am heading. 

I gave a contemptuous glance to Chuck Norris looking out from the poster on the sidewalk before kick starting and got it rolling.

I cut through the afternoon traffic, the heat waves and the harassed drivers. I felt like The Desert Fox, General Romel during Algerian campaign, destroying one allies bastion after the other and following Hitler’s express command. I sped out on the rubber melting highway, my scooter faster than the Panzer tanks. After a dozen kilometers of lush green farms on the both sides, a dug-in-haste signpost led me to the inside plots. 

The Cardiff bungalows were a recent addition spread over five kilometers area. Yards and yards of manicured lawn, water fountains, landscaped gardens, old tamarind trees and arrogance separated the fifty odd bungalows meant for the diamond display class. My scooter conked out two lanes before I could reach bungalow No.14. The sun worked on my nerve as I walked on the tar road. The stiff canvas handles of tool bag made a red dent in my palm. To avoid the long walk I jumped over a fence and stepped over the private lawns. Barring the two toddlers playing outside a servant quarter in distance, the place was deserted. Every body was either absent, taking siesta, getting laid or could not be bothered. A shining lock was hanging on the service door, so I circled the squat building and came out in the front. I did not find any ‘Beware Of Dog’ sign, so I opened the walk-in gate and saw a ‘99 model red Merc convertible resting under the tiled roof. A Metallic blue Esteem was parked in the driveway front of the vehicle gate. 

The compound was strewn with shovels, trimmers, watering jugs, and other garden equipments. Two slated benches yet to be assembled were stacked near the low cement wall. The main door burst open before I could cross the diamond tiled portico and ring the door bell. She was my height if I could discount her two-inch stilettos. 

“Noorie Shroff?” I removed my stylish shades.

“Spectrum Repairs? You sure take your time.” 

Noorie looked at my tool bag as if it held a priceless treasure, avoided my eyes and led me in. We skirted the silk carpet of the drawing room. A serious looking entertainment center, a row of Chinese Buddha on the oak wood mantle, a life size white marble bust of Tagore, mauve silk curtains and half a dozen tables of different size, style and pedigree and a palace size sofa set; all these  made the room look a bit smaller that it was. A sandalwood incense stick burnt somewhere, or it was her perfume. 

We passed the Scandinavian style kitchen and a closed oak door on the right. The passage on our left lead to the service door. All walls, including the passage next to shoe rack wore rare prints, lithographs, and paintings of doubtful images and real value. 

We went into the room facing us. “Look,” she told me without telling me where. It was her room. A life-size poster of Jim Morrison faced another of Britney Spear on the opposite wall. Hundreds of CDs, audio cassettes were stacked neatly on a rich walnut brown corner table. A glass cabinet showcasing her perfume collection reminded me of the sample counters in the malls. A well-worn, open and upside down Diary of Anne Frank waited on her bedside table. The rice paper nightshade looked new but the stands were genuine antique brass. A treadmill exerciser and small weights rested next to the bathroom door. A silky gown kind of magenta dress with gold piping and heavy embroidery works covered the part of scarlet bed sheet. Two pairs of absurd looking shoes, sandals, sneakers and one pair of bathroom sleepers sat under the edge of rose wood bed. A small table facing the foot of the bed held a fourteen-inch TV with built in DVD player. 

She opened the window next to her dressing table and pointed at the air duct hanging from the concealed AC.

”I will need to switch off the mains, remove the cover and the front grill, and check the controls and air vents before I do any thing,” I announced. I felt desperate without the toke of my tobacco, but where to spit?

“This is so stupid,” she looked at her Cartier watch. “I am already running late. My maid should have turned up by now.”

I stuck the mauve and white curtain between the iron grill above the AC and rolled up my sleeves.

”Whenever it splutters with that funny noise, it is the duct, always. These ACs are designed for European countries where the temperature don’t go beyond fifteen degree,” she muttered and pushed her curly black hair away from her eyes.

“I am due at the rehearsal; they will throw tomatoes if I fudge the lines.” That was not for me but I heard. 


“Look, fuse and main switch are here. You just finish this repairing fast. Ok?” This time our eyes met.

“Who is comatose?”

“Shut up and finish,” Her nostril flared up like a thoroughbred racehorse, the only imperfection in that high cheek-boned face with crinkly shampoo commercial hair.

One thing I have learnt over the years, a simple philosophy about this work. Slow down to standstill when you are ordered to hurry. Be a yogi. Shut off all your senses, it keeps the pressure off. It might infuriate the people around you but at the end of the day, it makes sense. I have successfully tried this approach in my plumbing assignments also.

“My vehicle broke down on the way. I walked the rest in this heat. Can I have a glass of cold water please?” I asked looking at her seashell size nails. 

This time our eyes met for a long time. She blinked first and stormed out of the room. I heard the sharp clap of water glass on her dresser after a while. The water glass again reminded me of a chilled whisky soda and the gamut that goes with good a whisky.

I removed the grill, and ran the air blower over the interior of the AC. I changed the duct also, she was right about that. I checked the wiring and controls, no problem there. I switched on and the AC begun to hum. 

She stood in the doorway showing off her freshly painted seashells planted on her hips.

“It is working fine now,” I said.

“How much?”

“Three forty.” I gave her my fluorescent business card.

"I missed my rehearsal because of you and that scrawny maid.” She gave me the money and threw the card back.

Then we heard a faint noise.

“There, she is back.” 

“You check the AC!”

“After my maid check the AC you can go,” she let the air cushioned door shut on my face and went to the service door. To receive the maid, I guessed.

I faintly heard the service door opening as I went about to wipe my tools with her napkin. I neatly folded the napkin and put it back on her dressing table, the clean side up. Then to loo to relieve myself. I heard a scream, her drama artist scream, no doubt. I did not run the flush. I silently walked into the room and pried open the air cushioned door ever so slowly as I heard another scream and a violent scuffle outside. I looked out from the vertical slit between the door and the doorframe. 

They were three of them, about fifteen feet from me. Beyond the passage gap leading to the service door. One man with a broken nose had secured Noorie’s shoulders against the wall. The other one in blue shirt, his face savagely scratched, had clamped his left palm on her mouth. He punched her in the stomach, twice, to stop her screaming or to revenge her claw-work on him. She whimpered in pain, probably fainted and sled down along the wall.

“Don’t put her to sleep, goddamn it! You will carry her all the way? Idiot! Just gag her.” Third, the leader hissed. 

They made a ball out of two handkerchiefs and stuffed her mouth. Blueshirt produced a reel of tape. Two of them together fastened the skin color tape on her mouth, circling the head several times. All three men hovered over her now. From her flailing legs, I presumed that she was trying to get up again. 

“No pranks. We go out of the back door and you get in the white car waiting outside. If you act smart, I shoot your head off. Get it?” He patted her tape covered cheek gently and branded his revolver. 

“This is a clean, ransom job. No one gets hurt ok?” He released the safety catch.

She struggled against the two men as they pushed her in to the passage leading to the service door. Brockennose grabbed her hairs, pulled, and went first. Noorie’s hands were tied behind her back now. Blueshirt pushed and kicked her from behind. The Leader followed them.

I could not see any of them anymore as they turned the passage corner but she must have kicked the shoe rack on the way. A bronze head of Buddha banged down on the marble floor and clattered out from the passage.

May be my mood mechanism is directly related to state of my scooter engine. I grabbed the monkey wrench from my canvas bag, opened the door, and padded out. 

My wrench is about two feet of cast iron, badly rusted and rough as they come. The snout is blunt and smooth from use. It weighs about five kilos or more. I have grooved its handle for a good grip. By reflex, I raised my left toe that was plastered for fifteen days because the wrench had slid out of my hand. 

I heard the bolt on the service door sliding. The Leader holding the gun could not be facing my side, that is the chance I took. He wasn’t, as I peeked along the wall. 

The passage was flooded with the bright day light; Brokennose had opened the door. He was already on the steps, out in the sun surveying. Noorie was struggling on the threshold, held, and pushed out by Blueshirt. She started to thrash about violently at the door. The Leader, his gun dangling from his right hand warned her once again: 

“You get in the waiting Ambassador real quiet. You will be released in a day or two, probably earlier. Or you die in the compound here, alone. Your dad’s millions won’t bring you back. Now!” 

The leader, his back to me, must have seen the bulging eyeballs of Blueshirt who saw me bounding into the passage. The Leader turned in complete surprise. Noorie took her chances and flung a kick at his kidneys. This was his bad hair day. I swung the iron brute down on Leader’s confused head. Either the monkey wrench or the back of his head split on impact. His gun spat one bullet into the plaster before it fell down from his hand.

Blueshirt jumped and lost his balance trying to avoid the ricocheting bullet. Noorie turned and kept the Brokennose busy by repeatedly slamming the door in his face. I jumped over the Leader and pounced on the gun. 

Noorie kicked Blueshirt viciously in the groin before he could get up properly. He let out a slow, painful stanza and fell headlong over the steps. 

The Brokennose ran out in the open, his nose bleeding afresh from Noorie’s door slamming treatment. I heard the car engine catch. 

She finally freed her hands, grabbed a terracotta pot from the compound and destroyed it on Blueshirt’s rib cage as I saw Brokennose speeding the car out of our sight. 

Out of the danger now, I helped Noorie peel off the brown tape from her face. Sandalwood was her perfume, I confirmed. She spat out the wet gag. 

Blueshirt stirred and alarmed us, but only for a second. Then he lay peacefully unconscious in the lawn. We used his tape to tie his hands and feet.

“Put that gun away!” Noorie hollered at me so I complied. We stepped over the dead body of the Leader lying peacefully in a big brown-red puddle and entered the drawing room to get the phone. She called her father in Canada. She talked and cried. Cried and talked until she could talk without overlapping her words. Then she promised “no going out until you arrive”. Noorie convinced him not to rush over and wished him goodnight. Then she called her mother on mobile and talked as if talking to her grand daughter. I watched her in silent amazement. 

I asked Noorie if she knew her maid’s whereabouts. She didn’t. A new recruit, she said. We checked out if the key thugs had used was the key given to her maid. It was. For all the commotion including one bullet blast, no one from the neighboring bungalows peeked out. They took it for a cracker probably. I called 100. 

Despite the heat wave outside and a working AC inside, we flopped in the bamboo chairs kept in the portico and waited for the police. 

I knew the future scenario. The bastard who actually ordered the kidnap job will never be caught, let alone prosecuted. We will make endless visits to the police stations and the courts. We will give our detailed statements to the police that no one will ever read. The case file will catch dust, silverfish, and then termites will make a feast out of it. We, I specially, will be cross-examined thoroughly, first by the police and then by the vulture lawyers. It will be years before the law will run its course and the case will be buried for the lack of sufficient evidence. 

They might find Brokennose, if our sketchy descriptions of the car could be of any consequence. Blueshirt would spend some time in the hospital and then probably in a jail. 

The visits to the courts and the police stations might improve Noorie’s manners. She will definitely learn patience. She might not venture out for weeks. And she will have to find another maid.

Still, I felt elated. I wanted to savor the triumph of my lucky monkey wrench.

My mouth watered as I plucked out the tobacco pouch and my wet-lime tube. I poured the prized dose of dry tobacco in my left palm and added a judicious goop of the lime paste. I squashed the mix between the right hand index finger and the hollow of the left palm. I massaged the heady mix thoroughly. Then I transferred the powdered tobacco to my right palm and blew off the excess lime dust from the left. I repeated this delicate palm changing operation thrice. 

Before I can take a hit, Noorie said “how disgusting,” and slapped my wrist. She spilled the fruit of my precious labour. The powdered tobacco got in our eyes and nose. She sneezed and sneezed. There was nothing else to do but look at the heat haze, the barren gardens, the empty plots, and each other until the police arrived.

It was a long wait. Noorie wouldn’t go inside the house because of the dead body so I went in to fetch two glasses and a large bottle of chilled cola. Our glasses misted as I poured.