By Salini Vineeth
When I first met Quissa, I thought she was yet another post-civil-war filmmaker—stoic and sceptical. At least she looked like one—unisex clothes in military green, brutally cropped hair, and a permanent frown plastered onto her face. She reminded me of Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. But I soon learnt that stories transform her. Her frown smooths out, her dark-circled eyes twinkle, and her grave face turns into a canvas—a smile, a smirk, or a pout.
“I want to make a film with you.”
I was surprised when Quissa sought me out a few months ago. Which shelter generation filmmaker hires a 60-year-old rom-com writer? The war-torn generation’s movies have no room for cheesy romance or mindless comedy.
“I wanna make a comedy movie,” Quissa clarified.
The thrill of waking up at dawn, brewing a cup of black tea, sitting at my desk staring at the laptop screen, and chuckling at my lines—I hoped I could relive those feelings. That was five months ago. Now I feel I shouldn’t have been too ambitious.
“A comedy movie needn’t be silly.” Quissa has been turning down my plots with no regard for my glowing legacy as a hitmaker. I can’t blame her, though. I had lost my mojo a long ago. Twenty years ago, to be exact.
The pandemic ended in 2022 but left the country knee-deep in recession. Our leaders clung to the ‘our country is the greatest!’ delusion for a while. Then the banks failed. Markets collapsed, online shopping dwindled, start-ups crumbled, and jobs diminished. The currency hit an all-time low value. Prices skyrocketed as people began essential supplies.
The hatemongers who had been sowing the seeds of the conflict knew it was time for harvest. They made the majority believe that the minority was a leech that sucked the country dry. Isolated clashes were blown out of proportion, towns burned, and the nation fought against itself. Quissa’s generation was orphaned during the civil war and spent their adolescence in dingy rehabilitation centres. But then, young leaders emerged from the shelters and instated democracy.
We called them the shelter generation.
The country has stabilized now, and the economy has revived. But the shelter generation anticipates war at any moment. They aren’t ready for a comedy movie; they might even find it offensive. But Quissa is confident, and I believe in her. The past few weeks, while we were hacking at plots, I couldn’t help but admire her deep sense of story. She understands what makes people laugh and what will be a wet firecracker. Quissa won’t settle for anything less than phenomenal. But I am unable to come up with a single decent plot. Stories had left me a long time ago. Maybe I am too adamant to admit that.
We have been sitting in my forlorn study for the past few hours, going over my new plots. Quissa reads them one by one and shakes her head in disappointment.
“This isn’t working. I want something fun, clever, and unapologetic, like Fleabag.”
“You’ve watched Fleabag?”
“Why wouldn’t I? I was thirteen, and it was the lockdown.” Quissa winces; memories have sharp edges.
“Anyway, you gotta come up with something better, something outrageous. People are addicted to gloom. I thought you rom-com writers could make even a rock laugh,” Quissa says, chuckling. It’s a taunt, but I laugh along. I know it isn’t easy for her to laugh.
A notification flashes on her phone.
“Wow, it looks great! What you say?” Quissa asks, showing me an image on her phone.
A hurricane whirls around me and hurls me deep into the past.
“We can’t just hole up in this apartment. We need to do something, anything,” the columnist said, peeping through the narrow slit in the curtain. A group of men were attacking a boy.
“The streets are burning. There’s no police, no government, nothing. What we can do is stay here and save our lives. No matter what we do, we can’t save this country,” the independent filmmaker said.
“Aren’t you ashamed to say that? Where’s all that activism you preach in your movies? Aren’t you sick of hiding like a rat?” the columnist retorted.
“No, I am not ashamed of keeping myself alive. You might not be afraid; the majority out there is your people. It’s not like that for me.”
“People, please. Don’t start a war in here. Yes, it’s been months, and it’s horrible. I want to do something, too. All of us do. But there’s nothing we can do,” the soap-opera writer intervened.
“Yes, we don’t have internet, not even the cellular network. It’s impossible to do anything,” the filmmaker supported.
“Do you think posting on social media would’ve got us out of this? Forget the internet. We need to get on the ground. Do something, at least die on the street. That’s better than rotting in here like cowards,” the columnist rushed out of the room.
I stood in my study, unable to curb the fury of my friends. When the unrest started three months ago, we thought it would pass in a week or two. But it didn’t. The four of us decided it was best to move into my high-rise apartment, a gated community where the super-rich lived. Unlike the majority in the country, we had enough money to buy food and other essentials on the black market.
The initial weeks went by amicably. We binge-watched movies, did our part of slacktivism, blamed the government, and planned trips we would take in the better future. We didn’t know we would be stuck in that apartment for the next few months. Then the internet broke down, our mobiles disconnected, supplies diminished, and so did hope. Each of us retreated into our heads.
A few more months passed, and the situation outside wasn’t getting any better. One evening we were sitting in the library, relishing our only comfort—books.
“Guys, I am done here. I am going out, I don’t know what I am going to do, but I am done hiding,” the columnist made a sudden announcement.
“Hey, be practical, okay? Hold on for a while, and we can survive this,” the soap-opera writer said.
“This country came to this situation because of cowards like you. Like the frog in boiling water, you’ll die, and you won’t even know it. I’d rather die fast,” the columnist retorted.
“I am tired of hiding too. But do you have a plan other than going out and getting shot at? It’s suicide, and I won’t let you do that,” the independent filmmaker said.
“Anything is better than sitting here hating yourself. I can’t loathe myself anymore. If not for these books, I would’ve gone out and got shot already,” I said, staring at the pages of Brave New World.
“What did you just say?” The columnist jumped up from the chair.
“Um… that I would’ve gone outside,” I mumbled.
“No, no. before that,”
“The books, I would’ve killed myself if not for the books.”
The columnist turned silent. Peeping outside the window, he brooded. He didn’t speak with any of us for the next few days. It felt like a volcano was fuming inside the apartment.
“I can’t hide anymore. We need to do something,” the columnist said. None of us said anything. “We may not know how to use guns, but we do have something more powerful. Our stories, our books,” he added. I felt a sudden rush of enthusiasm. A new wave of life passed through me.
“What nonsense are you saying? People are dying all around. Who wants to listen to stories? The country is burning; where’s the place for stories?” the filmmaker sniggered.
“The country is burning, yes. But it’s not going to burn forever. There’ll be a time when a new generation emerges to take the reins of this country. For that, they need hope. They should know there’s something to look forward to, a hopeful future. That’s what we are going to do. We’ll tell them stories,” the columnist said.
“If we want to do something, then we should do the basics. Food, water, and shelter. Do you think anyone hungry would want to listen to fairy tales?” I asked.
“We have a truck. We can buy more food, water, and books. We can go to the shelters and read to the children. I don’t know how long we’ll last, but don’t you think it would be a better use of the rest of our lives?” the columnist asked, looking at each of us expectantly.
“It’s suicide. I am not going to go out and get shot for your lame ideals,” the filmmaker declared.
“Me too. I won’t do something stupid like this.” The soap opera writer joined in.
So, it was just the two of us, but it didn’t stop us. Everything moved fast. We emptied our library and loaded books into my truck. We bought food, water, and petrol on the black market. We drove around, hoping our white flag and peace slogans would keep us safe.
But it wasn’t easy as we thought. We found children in shock and trauma in every shelter we went to. They ran and hid when they saw us. They cared little about our food or stories. But we didn’t give up. We went to shelters day after day, braving the violence on the streets.
The children did come around after a while. We sat with them in the dimly-lit dorms of those shelters. Children would relish the bread and water along with our stories. Our stories transformed them, at least for a while. Their fear disappeared, and their eyes twinkled with hope. For a few hours every day, they forgot all about the horrible world outside.
“What is this? Where did you get this photo?” I ask Quissa, staring at that image. It looks like a book cover, and the title reads The Book Truck. The cover features an old photo of our truck. My heart is beating at an alarming speed.
“Why? What’s wrong? This is the cover of the new book I am writing. It’s a personal project. I got this photo from a war photographer’s private collection.”
I take the phone from Quissa’s hands and zoom into the photograph with shivering fingers.
“A hand grenade blew the truck just a few minutes after this photo was taken. It killed him, and… and..” I choke on my words.
Quissa rushes to get me a glass of water. I take a sip, trying to compose myself.
“Oh, my God! Was it you?”
“Yes, me and my best friend.” I fill her in.
Quissa rushes to my side and sits by the foot of my wheelchair. She takes my hands into hers.
“I have been searching for you guys all this time. Without you, I wouldn’t have come out of the shelter alive. We were a bunch of kids, always scared, jumping at even the slightest of sounds. When the truck started coming to the shelter, things changed. We called it the book truck. We looked forward to the food, but what appealed to me was the stories. They gave me hope that things are going to be normal. But then you stopped coming. We had no way of finding out what had happened to it,” Quissa says, squeezing my hands.
“Do you remember those impromptu storytelling sessions? While looking for a new writer for the movie, I had your voice in my head,” Quissa adds, and a tear escapes her left eye.
A wave of life passes through me. A warmth embraces me. Quissa’s face tells me it was all worth it. I feel a story forming inside me.
Salini Vineeth is a Bengaluru-based fiction writer. She has self-published four books and her stories have appeared in The Bangalore Review, Café Dissensus, and The Bombay Review among others. Her debut novel will release in 2023.
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