It started innocently enough—letter here, a word there—and he reasoned that Mrs. Pookutty needed the help, her English-in-retirement simply having acquired some rust since her School-Principal heyday. She probably meant to use the right word all along, the one Prabhakar had just typed.
“The unexploded ordnance just lay thier, partially buried in the sand – silently biding its time, waiting to be unearthed.” She had dictated in her gravelly voice.
“Prabhakar, spell ‘there’ correctly, ok? ‘T.h.i.e.r … I before E, except after C’!” she added in the bossy tone she had developed since starting on this latest novel. Blindness and old age had failed to blunt her imperiousness. Instead of lending her gravitas though, her shortness was often condescending and sometimes, sulky. She stormed around lately, in a thinly disguised bid for relevance.
Prabhakar wrestled his tone into a meekness he did not feel but could not make himself perpetuate this travesty of language. He deftly quieted his inner voice whispering that perhaps this was also a tiny act of rebellion. He backspaced over the appalling misspelling with whisper-quiet keystrokes that her bat ears wouldn’t detect. Then he gently replaced it with ‘there’ on the shiny laptop she had pointed him to when he first started working in her musty old study.
The young man massaged his temples where a headache was starting to blossom and tugged at the collar of his polyester shirt, trying to vent some of the heat his body had stored this long summer day. Nothing was working. He took a deep, steadying breath like his father, his Appa, had taught him. A short fuse was his weakness and her curtness was a reliable trigger. He jerked around in this marionette dance, suspended between contentment and drive. Sometimes it was hard to believe that their paths had first crossed only a year ago.
A year ago, she was at her retirement party, offering tight-lipped smiles to a room full of secretly relieved employees, everyone aware of the sham yet still sharing desultory and dishonest paeans. Her eyes had landed on the sweeper in his much-darned khaki uniform hovering over the cake on the table well after he had stacked the plates and forks. She watched for any trespasses on the decorum she valued so highly with eagle-eyes that had earned her reputation of being an undisputed disciplinarian as well as a killjoy. She knew Prabhakar as the school sweeper, tasked with cleaning the flotsam left by high-octane students in suddenly-silent classrooms at day’s end. He cleaned bathrooms and did other Sisyphean tasks including menial odd jobs that teachers felt were beneath their status. Fittingly, the pay for his level of staff was inversely proportional to their intrinsic value: no society can function without these lowest rungs of service yet people— including Mrs. Pookutty—stepped upon them with callous indifference as they ascended to the comfort of their entitled heights.
Mrs. Pookutty casually moved a few feet closer to the cake, still nominally engaged in oily adieus from colleagues she knew had hated her. She was sure the unkempt young man with the overgrown curls was sneaking frosting while others were distracted. Apart from breaching strict class barriers (a sweeper eating with teachers—the gall!) he was possibly contaminating the cake with his grubby hands. So, when he bent directly over the cake, she dropped the last vestiges of discretion and jumped on him from behind and yanked him around by the shoulder, a preemptively triumphant smile already wrapping around her face. Her last crackdown in a long history of policing this school was way more satisfactory than this insipid glad-handing. She looked into his brown eyes, wide with shock, and down at his hand holding a fork smeared with the incriminating frosting. Just as she was about to unleash the outrage that had been building up this past suspicious half-hour, he blurted, “Corrected spelling mistake, Madam,” and he gestured fearfully at the cake. Mrs. Pookutty bent until her nose was an inch from the cake towards which he was pointing, oblivious of titters behind her at yet more undignified proof of her fading vision and the reason for early retirement. Prabhakar had deftly scraped away just enough icing to correct the sacrilegious typo scrawled atop her farewell cake: ‘Happy retyrement!’ may not be a realistic wish for her, but at least the word ‘retirement’ was spelt correctly now.
“You know English?” she asked in an oddly tight voice.
“Yes, ma’am. I almost completed my M.A. in English but my father got sick and . . . ”
Prabhakar trailed off and hung his head, partly in shame for his ignominy, partly from fear of the potential fallout from hogging the limelight at this event of his social superiors. He could not afford to lose this job. His father’s failing heart that lost his father an income and him, his education, also needed regular life-saving medication. It was up to him, the only son, and a half-complete master’s degree had not opened any doors to lucrative jobs. When their savings dwindled, he sold his books, and when those were gone, his watch and prized fountain pen. They were down to eating one meal a day when his worn thong slipper broke on the sidewalk outside the school. He was trying to fix it with a piece of string he found in the gutter when the hubbub made him look up. The dark green gates to the school grounds opened and a guard emerged, gripping a portly, short man by the collar of his sweeper uniform.
“Don’t ever let me catch you on this street, you scoundrel!” he yelled after landing a final shove to get him on his way. Catching Prabhakar’s shocked stare, he spat, “What are YOU looking at? You drink on the job too?”
He had almost disappeared behind the slowly closing gate when Prabhakar found his courage, voice and after a half-hour interview, a job.
But Mrs. Pookutty didn’t learn any of this that night. She was uncharacteristically quiet at that party, taking in the educated but underfed young man before her, letting his incomplete sentence percolate through her mind and tickle her dormant writer’s imagination. She returned to the school a week into her retirement and marched out gripping Prabhakar though not by the collar like the sweeper before him, but by the hand. The green school gates closed behind them, entombing the bitter times they each had spent there.
Now, his debt of gratitude to her left no space to react, regardless of instigation. And anyway, she had only demanded he serve as a typist, not editor, so quibbling over spelling was as far removed from his job as his days of need were to his current comfort.
“Mauri children on the playground a few hundred yards away shrieked in summer holiday voices that were unholy amalgams of over-energized little bodies and inexplicable glee.” She dictated in a measured rhythm.
Mrs. Pookutty paused for sips of water every few words along that beautiful sentence, giving Prabhakar time to marvel at the lucidity of her images, the tautness of her phrases. They aroused the most peculiar confusion in him: an almost-sensual delight in her glittering language entwined with his hidden desire to unleash his own. Words had chased each other around inside his head ever since he could read; the stories and poems barging into his farming chores had routinely landed him in trouble in the village. They finally chased him right out of it and into the city where his innate talent won him a scholarship-fueled college degree in literature and an almost-Masters. The forced hibernation of his ambitions in the intervening years of penury had only recently ceased, and words were, in a bizarre twist of fate, now bringing him sustenance through this job, if only indirectly. Yet it was getting increasingly difficult to still his fingers as they danced to the old lady’s tunes, obediently birthing her thoughts. He sometimes thought he could feel them vibrating with phrases of their own, straining for release. A stock of stories had been incubating in him and new ones constantly took shape in fevered dreams. But all were now held at bay by the shackles of daily need.
“The little girl everyone called Hiri toddled away from the sandpit at the playground’s edge. Her face was pink from the sun and wore the distressed look of suddenly having remembered her mother. The sister who was meant to be minding her was painting her toenails, carelessly, on the bench, mouth slackingly open from boredom.”
Mrs. Pookutty rapped out the last few lines at a faster pace than he had heard all day. She seemed excited about something. Prabhakar quietly changed ‘slackingly’ to ‘slackly’ as she took yet another sip of water. She went through two earthen urns of drinking water a day. It was also his job to replenish her cup, and this menial task seemed to weigh on him just a bit more every day that desperation forced him away from ambition.
“In the last sweep, the bomb disposal squad had missed this far corner of the old artillery testing range. The new housing complex had encroached, unnoticed, onto it, placing the playground right in the center of the minefield. It was funded by an unexpected U.N. grant for the developmental needs of Mauri children in struggling communities. But there was no due diligence towards safety, just a rush to spend.”
A pause, as Mrs. Pookutty smoothed back her wiry, white hair and fidgeted in her chair.
“Oof! This won’t do. Too dry and dark. Romance and sentiment is what I need. What is all this I’m saying? Tch! Delete, Prabhakar, delete! Need a break. Madhu! Madhu!! Where is this girl when I need her?” she called irritably.
A soft pattering of feet later, the study door swung open. A teenager in the traditional half-sari of Southern India peeked in and mumbled, “Yes, Amma? I was outside only. Preparing the evening snack.”
“There you are. Make sure you throw out the rotten Lychees this time, OK?”
Mrs. Pookutty’s tone became uncharacteristically gentle.
“Yesterday I ate half of one before I realized. Aiyo, how terrible the taste is! The memory of it is still on my tongue. Help me to the bathroom, now. Carefully, child.”
Madhu always had this softening effect on her. Maybe it was the reason she held onto her job despite her absent-mindedness. It had to be. Mrs. Pookutty couldn’t possibly be reacting to the large, kohl-rimmed eyes. She was likewise spared the sight of Madhu’s lustrous, thick braid, as it swung around to her lithe, almost-seventeen movements. No, Mrs. Pookutty was responding, as anyone with a heart might, to the young girl’s voice brimming with joy and barely suppressed laughter. The tinkling of her anklets, resting under the delicate knobs of her ankles that were a darker, leathery brown than her feet, sparkled for those who chose to look. Prabhakar, unlike Mrs. Pookutty, was subjected to the full blast of all the charms of this almost-woman. Lately he had felt a disquieting need to look away whenever Madhu entered the room: from her hair, those rough but mesmerizing ankles and from those almond-shaped eyes, full of light and laughter. He was glad she left now with Mrs. Pookutty.
The 3 o’clock Chennai sun angled in through half shuttered windows. Motes of dust spiraled in the shafts of light, turning the air hazy wherever they were visible, and thick, where they were not. An odd, taunting stillness in the room was broken only by the labored creaking of the heavy ceiling fan. Everything seemed to mock his dullness, his impotence as writer, suitor, son. Prabhakar held himself still and felt the sweat, which had beaded on his forehead, dry gradually in the warm drafts from the fan blades. He opened his eyes after a few steadying breaths and applied the ‘backspace’ key to the long, dry passage Mrs. Pookutty had just asked to be expunged. The cursor blinked benignly at him from the end of the last ‘approved’ sentence.
A chubby, innocent toddler headed towards an unexploded bomb. He felt an almost unbearable tension in the air as the future of an imaginary character hung in limbo; resolution awaiting the end of a bathroom visit. What power writers have! A few words to end a life or to beget one. Or, in this case, one flighty woman’s power to adulterate what was shaping to be an unflinching look at the plight of minorities through the courageous literary device of Death into some trope of romance-in-unlikely-situations. Overdone, pandering, populist swill rather than a bold story challenging readers, disrupting judgments of gratuitous violence by forcing people to look—LOOK—at what pain means! Reading another person’s shining, singing words coupled with his own burgeoning literary sensibilities plus tumbling in the Madhu’s sensual wake, Prabhaker’s walls started closing in.
Always a follower, never a creator would he be.
Always an admirer, never admired would he be.
A crow outside the barred window let out a loud “krawk!” and something, somewhere gave way. His fingers broke into an unexpected, unplanned Dervish dance that started slow but quickly gathered force until individual key-clicks closed together to raise a low-pitched whine. Prabhakar neither blinked nor breathed, held in a shimmering madness quite beyond his control.
“What all are you typing? Did you make mistakes before? Is the laptop malfunctioning or what?” the old lady asked from the doorway.
Prabhakar shuddered and sucked in a long drag of air as his fingers subsided into habitual subservience. His eyes regained focus and he glanced around, trying to relocate his bearings.
“Concentrate please now. I know exactly what should happen next. Now write … ”
Five months later, around the end of November, a package arrived. Madhu took the delivery slip and pen with quiet pride, ignoring the leer of the courier boy. She signed it carefully, smiling in tribute to the wonderful man who had lately lifted her out of illiteracy and into a rose-colored world. The handsome man who had shot occasional smiles from behind the computer that gave her goosebumps, had finally emerged into the light. All it took was for her to offer him an extra roti at lunch one day. They started exchanging more open smiles, then conversations and finally, with the unbelievable blessings of the old lady, reading and writing lessons. That was just the beginning. Lunch times, tea breaks and short respites when the old lady took her afternoon siesta were transformed from sultry, punitive sentences into small slices of heaven. Shared laughter, promises, combined dreams of a future and just recently, furtive kisses, had poured light into both these young lives.
The new silver anklets Prabhakar had clasped around her ankles just last week jingled sweetly as she dashed up the cement stairs leading to the small rooftop room that Prabhakar now rented from Mrs. Pookutty. No more long commutes to bookend Prabhakar’s day. Evenings of reading, song and peace for all three of them and more space (and money) for his parents at home. Madhu rapped on the tin door with her knuckles, clutching the package to her chest, waiting breathlessly for a response.
“My Madhu,” breathed Prabhakar from the doorway, gazing at her with reverence.
His smile was returned with a matching measure of meaning: so much had changed in a few months. Prabhakar’s exile in insignificance was over and he was now amongst The Favored. His glance fell on the buff-colored envelope clutched to her chest then shifted to the sender’s address in a corner. His expression changed.
His short, mad sprint towards freedom in the musty room came back. He had not been able to delete the first original words he had produced and it had caught up with him now. Mrs. Pookutty had no idea that the words she dictated had been typed into a different document. Prabhakar had hijacked her manuscript from that point in the afternoon, letting his own instincts shape the pages. When she asked for editing read-backs, he read out her words from the other document, and hungrily savored his own which nestled in the manuscript that had eventually gone to her publisher. He had mailed it in himself, wrapped in a fog of desire to be published. He had blocked it out thereafter, refusing to think of an alternative possibility where his gamble failed, and he would have to face the woman who saved him and was then exploited for his own literary ambition.
As he read the sender’s address of the envelope in Madhu’s hand again, the truth hit him: when he opened it, his life would either be showered with hope or by the ashes of his dreams. Snatching the envelope out of Madhu’s hands now, he slammed the door in her face and ripped it open inside his small room. She banged on the door outside, calling his name, for almost twenty minutes. He emerged finally only to push out past her, holding his bag, pausing only to stuff the letter back in her hand. He looked at her once, with dead eyes that could not even say “I’m sorry.”
Half an hour later found Mrs. Pookutty in her armchair tapping her fingers on the armrest impatiently. Where was that Prabhakar? She was ready and raring to go on this new novel. Indonesia, this time. So much material from her diplomatic tours with her husband. The years when youth and a lust for life helped soak up the Technicolor details that now relieved her darkness. The study door creaked as Madhu leaned on it.
“Madhu? Is that you? Where’s that Prabhakar? Can’t he hear me calling?”
Madhu put a crumpled piece of paper in her hand and muttered tonelessly “Gone, Amma. After reading this letter. For good, he said. He said to give this to you.”
“Gone? Where? What’s this letter? Read it to me, girl!’ snapped the old lady.
Madhu sank down on the floor and smoothing out the letter, read haltingly.
‘Dear Mrs. Pookutty.
Thank you for your manuscript. We are unable to publish your novel at this time as the violence of a toddler dying in an explosion is discordant with our taste and a departure from the romance/action genre we are seeking to promote. We applaud your effort and find the settings very evocative. Your language has evolved in some intriguing ways and we would like to discuss an expansion of your work into other genres. Should you choose to re-write some key parts of this current novel to fit our needs, we might re-consider this manuscript too.
The door to Prabhakar’s empty room on the roof banged shut in a sudden breeze. Mrs. Pookutty stared sightlessly into the past, wondering where in her manuscript she had written about the death of a toddler.