Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Muses over Manholes

By Murzban F Shroff

The writer walks home, carrying with him his perpetual load. He has left his workplace, his den, from where he dreams of changing the world. The workplace is a nine-by-eleven feet Italian-tiled storeroom peopled by protagonists, offenders, law-breakers, murderers, and victims, all who are locked up in a seventeen-inch computer screen. They will exist in the writer’s head and grow there till set free by a publisher. Or by some kind literary agent who has a soft corner for newcomers.

The writer’s shoes squeak against the pavement. His pace is slow and unhurried. There is a reason for this. Bombay rains are here - warm, frantic, spiritual, making the pavement slippery.

Pitter patter, pitter patter, and the road blushes black. The branches of trees spread out eagerly. Leaves and water greet each other like long-separated cousins. The trees shake off their sullenness. They have been sulking ever since the cabbies refused to abide by emission laws. The trees breathe disbelievingly, first slowly, then rhythmically, all the way down to the roots. Or so the writer imagines and hopes. He also breathes, using mouth and nostrils both.

Cars slow to maneuver through the downpour. There is water filling at the sides of the road, where it slopes, just before the pavement. Car wipers beat maddeningly against the windscreens. They remind the writer of middle-age women on treadmills, trying to work off their calories. Both face resistance. Some wipers screech as they clean the windscreens; some just don’t function; some are conspicuous by their absence - they have been ripped off by urchin boys and traded in for a meal.

The rain drums an incessant beat on the roofs of shops and against their closed metal shutters. Rats - scarier washed than dry - dart for cover. Taxis cruise by restaurants and bars. Big-bellied drunkards lurk outside, pondering over the merits of another drink. They pull at their cigarettes and let out a little gas unnoticed. Silently, they grapple with their libidos and contemplate discreet addresses that would deliver satisfaction. Paan-beediwallas make the last sale of the night.

The pavement glistens like a black polished landscape. The sky above is velvet and watchful. It pours forth its load as though there is a quota to be dispensed. The rainfall is intense, in unrelenting sheets of silver, which makes it difficult to see ahead, beyond a few feet or more. Small brown puddles well up at the side of the road. Motley garbage - a heap of bottle caps, papers, plastic wrappers, vegetable shavings, and fruit peels - is pelted and crushed by the rain. The sins of the city trickle into manholes not yet choked. The writer reaches the end of the road. He sees a crossroad ahead. The crossroad divides the East side from the West. There are more trees on the West side. Plus old stone buildings, new skyscrapers, and a police station for safety.

Safety never did much for the imagination, muses the writer. A city must excite, must provoke and titillate, he tells himself. Life, like writing, must annihilate to create. He is pleased with himself for such deviant wisdom. The traffic lights blink at him. They appear to be mocking him, pulling faces – the way schoolboys do. Behind him a cough starts.

The cough is hollow and heinous. The writer recognizes the sounds of ill health. Life ignored is life at risk. This could pertain to the old woman he has just passed, coughing on the pavement, or it could hold for the prostitute soliciting on the opposite side of the road unaware of the virus that killed.

The cough settles into a deep, hacking rhythm. The writer turns to see the old woman. Her face is a sheet of quiet imbibed pain; her hair is white and inflamed under the streetlight; the rest is all bones and ribs. The writer listens to the monster exploding within her. He recognizes the sound of tuberculosis. Living in Bombay, he has fought millions of tuberculosis germs. He has held a peace kerchief to his mouth in the face of polluting cabs and trucks. And he has sprinted past malodorous urinals and open-air shitting grounds, holding his nostrils and pursing his lips.

The coughing gets hysterical. The woman struggles to rise. For that, she uses a bony arm. Her sari drops and reveals her rib cage, and under that her wild beating lungs and a wilting pouch of breast. There is no bra, nothing to cover her bony chest and her protruding ribs.

Still, life’s lingering shred, muses the writer, as he sees her lift her sari and place it over her shoulder. She does this out of habit, as she might have done in younger years.

For me, nothing, not even a shred of hope, the writer thinks. The publishers don’t even call him by name any more. Dear Author, we regret to inform you – he has read this even before the postman has had time to collect his breath and retreat down the staircase. Earlier, the writer used to memorize the compliments. He used to preserve and breathe in the balms, sweetly, naively, for days. While we must compliment you on a lively sense of observation, we regret your work does not fit our list. Sometimes it specified “fit,” mellowed it by saying at this point in time. Sometimes it encouraged him to submit elsewhere. To different countries, different presses. Most times, he stayed humble in his replies. Thank you, sir, for the time spent. If you could volunteer an insight I’d be grateful.

That’s when they stopped writing to him, snuffed him out like he never existed. After that he just broke. You realize, sir, what you are holding: a 21st century version of Catcher in the Rye.

For three years he wrote, and for three years it kept coming back. Regrets only: they wrote the book on that. It was like there was some sinister pact with the post office. Like even the postmaster knew the book was going nowhere. “Thank you, Mr. Postman,” he was tempted to say. “Thank you for bringing back the manuscript. Print-outs are expensive, you know?”

The last was the unkindest cut of all. He felt like a Caesar betrayed, a Timon spurned, Lear raging in a storm. We are pleased to accept your manuscript and look forward to sharing our best services for success. There was an expensive-looking brochure printed in extraordinary colors. The paper was rich and glossy, achieved at the expense of some poor sacrificial writer. Or should he say “customer,” since all rights were forsaken once that decision was made? Once you paid to get laid, the principle being the same.

Like a persistent tout, the brochure spoke and adhered to his ear. It whispered promises he didn’t want to hear: “Cut out the misery once and for all; cut out this coupon now. The only thing that stands between you and your future is your pride. The greatest enemy of your talent is you. Why worry about the outcome when you have found an outlet?”

He was smart enough to realize the conspiracy of forces working against him. Not just the publishers who had failed to recognize his worth, and agents too busy with known names, referrals, triple deals, but his own characters whom he had nurtured adoringly, patiently, sacrificing meals, sleep, and the comfort of a secure job. He had given them lives beyond ordinary fates, added on traits that would be discussed in classrooms. Pomp and success he had dreamt of for them. Like a true father, he was willing to bequeath all.

Yet, they had let him down. Like adolescent sons, they had betrayed him. They had failed to get themselves a career or a life, let alone immortality. The only thing real were the tears streaming down his cheeks, the rain lashing his face, and the brochure, which he clutched in his hand, creased, because he had read it thrice already.

There was a line in it that had led him to consider the option. “We hope to mature you into one of our finest writers yet.” Of course there’d be a fee. A pre-editorial fee, to begin with.

If there was a past life, it had caught up with him now. If there was an afterlife, it beckoned now. Eventually, everything down the tube, he thought. Because he couldn’t be like Steinbeck and pick grapes from an orchard. He couldn’t serve the earth endlessly, and all who lived on it. He couldn’t do that, because his own orchard (in which his creativity grew) was too big and too wide, and the grapes were always sour – unfailingly.

He lit a cigarette and cupping it pulled till the tip blazed. He watched the water at the side of the road rush toward an open manhole. The lid of the manhole was lying at the side. It was brown and rusted, like a giant cookie, discarded.

The water flowed toward the manhole, carrying the guck with it. The guck fell over the side and disappeared. Truly, thought the writer, what is not seen is not believed. That is as true of sanitation as of writing.

He took three short drags of his cigarette, frantic puffs, before it got wet. The rain hammered against his face. The wind rushed and howled. The rain fluttered like satin drapes on a stormy night. It was putty in the hands of the breeze. He could feel a chill at the back of his neck and on his ears. Slowly, he exhaled smoke over the manhole. It dispersed like a phantom fog. Smoke and water fought each other for prevalence, for supremacy. Smoke lost. It was subdued by the rain. He dropped the cigarette into the manhole. Then he crushed the brochure and flung it in as well. He watched the water swirl over it, gobble it. Instantly he felt a pinch of regret. We hope to mature you into one of our finest writers yet.

A scooter screeched past. It had three occupants, all boys, clinging to each other, and they called joyously to the writer. He waved back sportingly. At least they had the weather to celebrate, the end of an arid spell, he thought. The scooter skidded, regained control, and disappeared. The road appeared empty. The buildings looked deserted. The writer dropped to his knees, at the mouth of the manhole, and with quivering lips said, “Forgive me Lord, if I appeared ungrateful.” The water continued to trickle into the manhole. As it fell it made a gargling sound.

A fire engine went past. It tore through the night – a savage, blatant red riding hood, shrieking right of way. On board, the firemen donned their clothes. The ladder was almost halfway up. Hope on an improbable night. In the distance, the cough started, the same cough, continuous and weary. The rain poured in gray unforgiving sheets.

An hour or two later a municipality worker would appear. His trousers would be rolled up; in his hand he’d carry a long, thin iron rod with a loop at the end. He’d use this to dig into the manhole, to dislodge any rubbish that was stuck. The water inside would churn like a python emerging from hibernation. But the writer wouldn’t be there to see this. He’d have moved on.

The next day would be declared a holiday. Urchins would rush out to swim in the floods. They would splash alongside red double-decker buses, grinding their way through murky-brown water. They urchins would be joined by bare-chested youths who’d swim on their stomachs, nosedive, and come up for air each time a woman passed. They’d splash the woman, again and again, till her sari clung indistinguishably against her skin.

The rain would pour; gutters would choke; water levels would rise. People would stay indoors and find a million ways to relax. Living rooms would erupt in a blaze of cricket matches and Formula One races. Men would wrench open beer cans. Wives would scramble to rearrange the menus. Neighbors would drop in with bhajiyas and vadas. The older boys would play volleyball, downstairs, in the rain. Like incensed cheetahs, they would leap at the ball and scream pass, pass to each other. The girls would phone their boyfriends and whisper about where to meet and for how long. They’d drop their voices if their parents approached. The kids would eye the remote control and resent their fathers’ presence. Staying away from cartoon network wasn’t funny.

By afternoon the parked cars would disappear underwater. The newspapers would remember to get the picture but not the story. Why bother? It was the same story every year.

By evening a dull gray cast would appear in the sky. It would spread and obliterate heaven from earth, earth from all understanding. The sound of thunder would roll, crash, and reverberate across the city. Sensitive men would feel it in their balls. Less sensitive men would shut their ears. This is how the earth would be tested. How much of black rain can it take, how much of lashing before dawn, before the final cleansing? Streaks of lighting would flash by windows. It would startle babies and make them cry, and light up the faces of forbidden love.

The writer would be back in his Italian-tiled storeroom. He’d be sending out emails, query letters, and synopses. He’d change the wordings this time - more aggressive, like the weather, more culture-specific, like the roads - and he’d chip away in Word, and then hit “send” in Outlook Express, and he’d go “yes, yes, yes,” if it scanned and went through. And in case it didn’t – it bounced back for some reason like “server connection cannot be established” or “sender unknown” – he’d make a note to resend it later. He’d do so without feeling bad, without feeling wronged or misunderstood. For it was only the server that had rejected him and not the recipient and that he could endure easily. For like the weather, that too would change.

(An entry from Urban Voice III: Bombay; Shroff is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Breathless in Bombay)


Abhinav said...

Though his language is slightly more aggressive, Shroff's prose reminds me of Amit Chaudhari's Afternoon Raag on account of his zeal to search for that most proper word. Extremely poetic, it has the same power to infuse inanimate objects with a life of their own, without sacrificing melancholy at the altar of lyricism. An immensely deft evocation of Bombay's solitude with a dash of quiet understated humor, it can be compared in its pith by no other work I've read. Kudos to Shroff for a brilliant monologue on a city loved by its authors like no other city in the world.

Laju K. said...

I loved this one, thanks.
Lajwanti (Laju) Khemlani laju101@yahoo.com