When I met her for the first time, she was in her seventies. A writer with a conspicuous past. And no future. I knew her through her carefully constructed body of work – aloof in its low-pitched understatement. The words welded together smoothly and the reader was led into the labyrinth of her mind gently. Radicals populated her world but they refused to ape the sound and fury of the radicals in the world. As someone who followed her writing carefully, a relatively unknown writer who examined her ideas and their implementation critically, I never failed to marvel at her story-telling. So elegant and old-fashioned in its restraint.
When I met her at her home – through a friend – it was a strange meeting. I had an uneasy feeling I had met her before, somewhere, sometime; at the same time, I was hesitant to meet her. What would I tell her – that I was a fan? Authors like her did not have a fan following. She’d probably laugh at me, or if she were in one of her vicious moods, she might even kick me out of her home.
Still, I accompanied my friend to the house. Age and neglect had tiptoed in upon her while she had been weaving her words into story webs. I had a presentiment that our paths had crossed for a special purpose. An unexplained nostalgia overtook me. The overgrown garden with its accumulation of grasses and weeds and sewn-up flowerbeds brought back a memory I didn’t know existed.
I now know that our star-paths had intertwined for a brief span in that endless river of time so she could tell me her story before she died. I would like to add, ‘in peace’, but I cannot be sure how she died. Was she at peace then? Was her intuition still a step ahead?
Evening had fallen when we reached her home and she sat outside on the porch by herself. Her face shone like the cold winter moon through a gathering mist – ivory-pale, with the fragile beauty of old age. I saw that she looked much older than I had imagined. Her eyes regarded me coldly, unsparingly.
“Aapa, this is my friend, Gulab!” my friend, a distant cousin of hers, informed her.
“So?” she asked in a heavy voice. At the same time she shifted in her well-worn armchair, so that her face was turned away from us. We shifted uncomfortably.
“Sit down, sit down!” she said, her voice softening, “Don’t just stand there!”
I saw that her fingers stayed bent and she tried to keep them out of view. But her voice was strong. “A faded author – that’s what I am.” She remarked dryly.
We waited. All the time I felt I knew the setting and felt a curious excitement. Then she turned and peered at me through the thousand wrinkles that were now visible.
“I was young once… like you… ” her voice trailed away as she looked down at her empty lap.
“I have admired your work, always,” I said diffidently.
She was famous for her quicksilver temperament. Now, she laughed softly. To herself. It was the laugh of a young woman.
“Oh, I still write! And it is still admired!” she said, as she straightened in her chair.
I nodded and she turned her full gaze upon me. Her eyes pierced through my skin. The evening lay still on the edge of the verandah and a low-pitched whistle in the far distance announced an evening train making its sluggish way through fallen shadows and ripened wheat fields. I imagined it going through thin forests and wayside lonely stations with a forlorn stationmaster holding out the lamp signal. I saw the passengers nodding dully in the warm evening air circulating lazily within the coaches. Waiting for their destinations. Apprehending the end of the journey. Afraid for the new journey that would begin outside the station at the footboard of the city bus. Or in the dim interior of a dressed-up taxi. Quickening excitement. Choking despair.
“Come, let’s go in…” she interrupted me just as I paused in my mind. She got out of her cane chair with obvious effort and we went into the living room. My friend excused herself and left. Her husband was ill and she had to get home soon.
“Aapa, I will see you another day. Today I must go!”
“Oh, you are too good for that boy… he makes you work too hard.”
She hugged the girl and I saw her eyes shine with feeling. “Next time you come, bring him along. I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”
My friend smiled “He knows that. He will not agree to come.”
“Then you must trick into coming…”
She laughed again – that same soft, young laugh.
The living room with its faded paint, that may have been pink or off-white one couldn’t immediately tell, had a single light bulb hanging in the center, with two fans on either side. She switched on one of the fans that creaked into noisy circular movement. The furniture had probably never been changed after it had first been placed here. Two voluminous and shabby armchairs and a worn out settee. Scattered around were a handful of cane side-tables that were obviously there for pushing around at will. In the far end of the room, against unadorned walls, stood an old wooden dining table with an alarm clock and a dusty flower vase.
“Come, let’s have a cup of tea.”
I saw that she walked slowly and painfully. We sat and almost immediately, two cups of tea appeared.
“I hope it is hot!” she told the fast-vanishing back. There was no response.
She motioned me to cup of tea and slurped thirstily at hers.
“How long have you been writing?” she asked me imperiously.
“About ten years.”
“Is that all?” she seemed amused.
After a pause in which her glance grazed the ramparts of past flourishings, she went on, “Authors have strange notions these days. One book and they believe they have done it. In our time, getting published wasn’t enough. It was what you wrote that actually counted. Nowadays, I don’t understand what the writer wants to say…”
I looked at the paint chipping off the far wall. Sheepish. Guilty. Of the sins of modern-day writers.
“I have seen what you write,” she continued after another lingering sip of the sweet tea, “You have some talent, I believe.” Her eyes regarded me almost kindly, and her praise gratified me.
“Thank you,” I mumbled, “I do try to be faithful… to the tradition of good writing… to the notion of writing to say, rather than for my vanity.”
Another train whistled bleakly and I wondered what it was about those trains and their slow chugging through the endless fields that brought sadness into the room. A long, low whistle and the night-train drew closer. I looked out. The large window gaped into the night outside and I felt the darkness crouching on the window-sill, asking to be let in.
I picked up my teacup and emptied it in a hurried gulp. “I must be going!” I announced abruptly rising from the table.
She looked up at me in surprise. “Wait! I haven’t told you why I called you here.” She motioned me to sit down.
“I want you to write something for me.” She said at last, “A story that is about me… my life. I want you to tell this story…”
And that was how I gained permission to roam the corners and crevices of her mind. There, where impenetrable shadows lurked with ancient cobwebs. There, where grammar and its surreal reconstruction took root… where things began as a vague idea before ending in horribly real places.
She began talking.
“I remember the short story had won the Blue Peacock Prize. Lost Summer. About the woman who threw herself off the terrace of her tenth floor flat. An undying image of urban loneliness. The quiet and overpowering desperation born from the barrenness of the mind. It had won critical acclaim, intellectuals discussed it and sociology classrooms pondered it. It depicted the despondency of the modern urban woman and her position vis-à-vis men. The heroine, Sumita, chose not to cling to a half-baked life.”
“A week after the story won the prize, my friend Sumita jumped off the terrace in her building. Her husband had been shell-shocked. It was completely unexpected. He had never known what was going on in Sumita’s mind. The real tragedy. Exactly as it happened in my story.”
“I was frightened… puzzled…angry at myself.” She now told me in a soft, shaking voice. “I had never intended to use her name. Sumita. I just wrote the first name that came to me. How was I to know the real Sumita would meet with the same fate.”
“Perhaps the real Sumita took the cue from your protagonist?” I suggested.
She nodded. “Who can tell?” she paused, turning the situation in her mind, “But then there were no similarities. My friend was an artist not the bored housewife my protagonist had been. She wanted to paint. She painted all the time. Then she found a godfather – a young rich industrialist who liked her work and wanted to help her. You see after years of painting, she reached a juncture when she wanted to exhibit her work. This industrialist promised to help her nurture her talent. But her husband did not relish the idea of a painter-wife. He thought it was too upper class – something that did not belong to them – something they should stay out of. Weren’t they simple middle class people? Shouldn’t she stay within the bounds of her class? He didn’t like it – her husband. He was a strange man…”
The words, laced with deep disappointment, fell like ugly clods of earth into a sacred space.
“Coincidence!” I suggested.
She did not hear. She was lost amidst swirling mists of other memories that shook and stretched themselves out in fresh forms.
There was a pause, “Coincidence? What about the others?” she asked emerging from the mist. Her voice was very soft. A question. A sad admission. A puzzled thought. The emptiness of old hollowed-out words – words that had emptied their fetid odour in other people’s homes.
I wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘others’.
“Tell me about them!” I urged her softly.
“There was the story of the village girl who the villagers thought was a witch…I called it ‘Tree-woman’. The villagers starved her, threw her out of the village and eventually, the girl disappeared. Nobody knew where she had gone….”
A silence fell. The fan had stopped churning the air. Suddenly, it was still and I wiped the sweat from my face.
She was lost someplace I could not follow.
“A few months after the story appeared in an anthology, I accompanied a friend to a village where he ran a school. It was a small village with a small population – 200 people, give or take fifty people. Outside the village, near a lonely shrine there was a neem tree, and for some odd reason, I was drawn to it. As I went around the tree, sat beneath its shade, the villagers gathered around and regarded me with horror. They told me to move away from the bewitched tree. They told me about a girl who had been a witch and who had charmed away many babies’ lives. The village panchayat had then decided to drive her away from the village. The girl had taken refuge under the neem tree and she would be seen sitting with her back against its trunk. No food and no water. One day she disappeared. Nobody knew where she went.”
She paused. I found her story fantastic. Could it be true? Or was the old woman pulling a fast one on me? The fan had begun its slow torturous motion again and it was a relief.
The atmosphere had become unbearably hot and heavy and the silence stretched into taut sheets that could tear if I breathed too hard.
“Memsahibji, should I bring your dinner?” The ‘back’ had returned and this time I saw the face…. She looked at me, guiltily almost, for interrupting the conversation. I gave her a weak half-smile of assurance. It was all right. She had probably saved me from swooning away in disbelief. And fear.
The old woman made a vague gesture with her arm, which the ‘back’ understood and returned to the silent bowels within.
We finished our dinner. It was an ordinary meal but hot and good to eat. Maybe the bizarre tales had made me hungry. The ‘back’ served us unobtrusively – almost afraid to assume a more substantial form. I glanced at my wristwatch at the end of the meal in as surreptitious a manner as I could. It was eleven and my heart sank. I couldn’t get a cab at this hour. I was stuck.
Authors have strange notions these days. One book and they believe they have done it. In our time, getting published wasn’t enough. It was what you wrote that actually counted. Nowadays, I don’t understand what the writer wants to say…
About the Author
Meenakshi Jauhari Chawla likes short stories as a medium to say her piece. She has been writing for more than two decades and her work has been published in print and online journals through the years, a few of them being The Little Magazine, Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi) and Out of Print.