A short story by Avishek Parui
The day when his second novel was rejected in the same cold cursory manner the earlier one had been, Pavish Reuk decided to take a stroll across the city. He didn’t have much in his mind then, except a half-bitter tingling that always grew out of his failures. As he stood at the crossing with a crowd of scared masked men waiting for the green that summons pedestrians to march across the throbbing cars, Pavish Reuk realized that his whole life had been a string of failures.
He had been a failure at the crucial points in his student-life, excelling in the unimportant exams. He had been a failure in romance, having lost the only woman he had loved, as he didn’t have enough courage to tell her. He had been a failure professionally, failing in all the career-oreinted competitive exams and ending up as a lowly clerk in a semi-nationalized bank about to go bankrupt. Most importantly to him, he had been a failure as a writer, something he had always wanted to become.
Now, at the age of thirty-nine, with his greasy glasses, shrinking legs, and balding head, Pavish Reuk was in a loveless marriage with a disappointed wife and two children, none particularly fond of him. And yet, Pavish thought, despite having failed in almost all aspects of life, failure still saddened him, it still gave him the feeling of being denied, still, after all these years. This thought surprised him; it touched him with something that felt like happiness. Perhaps it meant, Pavish thought, that he still bore some dream, some debris of optimism that was hurt each time it was not fulfilled. Sensitivity to failures is somewhat a success. Pushed by a restless young man who muffled beneath his mask, Pavish began to cross the street. It had turned green while the last thought crossed his mind.
It had begun to drizzle, and the March Kolkata evening glistened with lights of various shades, strangely silhouetted by the many masked faces that marched slowly down the boulevards on either side of the main street. As the rain swished across the twilight shadows with the gusts of wind, and the cars’ lights mixed with the shafts from the streetlamps on either side, Pavish Reuk began to walk, breathing in the mixed smell of rain, dust, and sweat that spread along the pavement. He was not carrying an umbrella and though his thin hair looked thinner and his small frame smaller in the rain swept crowd, Pavish felt something resembling reverie beginning to fill him in. Suddenly a big black police van with a dirty diesel smell screeched to a halt by the road. Two policemen got off and walked briskly into the by-lanes that flanked the corner of the pavement. The sight of the van made Pavish afraid, though he did not understand why. It seemed to have a sinister message stuck to its dented sides. That, and the sound of a lame dog wailing at a corner of the pavement, took Pavish Reuk to where he did not want to go this evening: the memory of his last, rudely rejected novel.
His last novel was about a shepherd boy who loses his way in a blizzard and discovers a magic stone in the cave he took shelter during the storm. The stone enables him to see the truths out of other people’s lives and create stories out of those. As the boy starts using the stone, he becomes a brilliant storyteller, famous in the taverns, enthralling the people in his valley and even beyond it, till the people realize he makes up his stories from the incidents in their lives, from the carefully hidden secrets that were somehow prized open by the boy’s imagination. In the end, the people gather together and kill the boy through a public execution, but not before he had swallowed the magic stone. The next morning, as they wake up, the people in his valley cannot remember anything that had happened to any of them. The novel ends with the oldest man in the valley breaking down in tears for a reason he did not understand, while the others gathered around him, looking at him wail with a blank expression in their faces. A blizzard with a deadly epidemic was about to set in.
Pavish had drawn the novel with many characters and had named his central protagonist Pratham. There was also a series of subplots that had carried the novel to three hundred pages. But the only publisher Pavish knew and could approach hated the idea of the novel. The editor had clearly stated that his theme was more like an old-fashioned fairy tale and would have no takers in the modern world. Pavish loved the novel as it grew out of the flesh of his imagination. He could particularly relate Pratham to himself and had taken care to give him the attributes of his own younger days. But both he and Pratham had failed and as Pavish entered the staircase that led down on to the metro station, he decided not to write any novel anymore. The raindrops had become fatter by then.
Not knowing exactly where to go, not sure why he entered the metro station either, Pavish Reuk stood in the long snaky queue before the ticket counter. When he reached the counter after what seemed an eternity, Pavish mumbled the name of the next station as he put forth the exact fare through the narrow slit. There was a growing commotion in the metro station. The ticket-punching turnstile had broken down and an increasingly angry crowd swore at the nervous crew that tried to fix it. There was something numbing and scary about the way the people looked now, as if all of them were dreading a disease to break out, a massive infection about to spread like a contagion. Most of them were wearing masks which made them faceless in Pavish’s eyes. The broken turnstile seemed to have triggered some collective claustrophobia of being trapped in a tunnel full of worms. Pavish looked at the group of masked men and women around him.
There was this big burly man in blue shirt with a wart on his forehead who swore the loudest at the incompetence of the crew. There was this very attractive woman dressed in a red top that reminded Pavish of an accident he had seen from close three years back, in which a young girl lay in a pool of blood after being run over by a speeding truck. If the girl had lived, thought Pavish, she would have been as old as this woman. Trying to figure out if the girl looked like this woman as well, Pavish saw the woman staring back at him with a knowing half-smile that scared him. She wasn’t wearing a mask.
There was this absent-minded young man of about twenty-six, already balding, with a brooding look of a jilted lover or a confused philosopher, or both. A group of teenaged schoolgirls chatted away about something funny that had happened in school. Pavish tried to eavesdrop but he was too far away. He had always been too far away, he realised, from the real centers of interest.
Trying to recall with difficulty the content of a long letter he had been asked to type in office the previous day, Pavish fixed his gaze at the wart on the forehead of the big man that seemed to grow in size with his focus. It grew till it was an orange-red haze and would’ve grown bigger had it not been for the sound that rose above the noise of the human voices within the station.
The turnstile handle had given way to the machinations of the metro-crew and people were about to gush in like a flood of insects set free to infect each other. Between the moment when the turnstile broke with a loud crash and the one that saw the long-waiting crowd rush in, something happened inside Pavish Reuk. A loud cacophony of conflicting voices sent Pavish’s mind in a wild disarray even as he tried to figure out where those came from. The breaking of the turnstile, with its loud noise of collapse, had ushered in strange voices that spoke very fast, like a group of jugglers performing simultaneously with colored balls and knives. The many marks from the many wet shoes and slippers spread like a maze across the platform floor, a testimony to the drizzle above, as Pavish closed his eyes to listen…
“That bugger Bobby, he was sleeping with the boss’s wife or else the old hag wouldn’t have favored him so much…kicked the bucket…road-accident…didn’t his sister die in a similar way…three years ago wasn’t it…what the heck…let’s see if I can make some inroads now…” “The new English teacher is cute, and I think he likes me… kept glancing back at me through the entire class… should be fun… I’ll wear my new ear-rings tomorrow…” “How did she come to know where I was last evening? I had told her I was at an office meeting… like I do every time I go out… is she spying on me now?” “The film was crap…had to come along with him and waste so much money and time…as if this is a good time to come to a cinema hall in the first place, with all the scare going around… I should’ve stayed at home and completed the new problems of integral calculus…he’s so stupid sometimes… laughed like a fool at all the corny jokes during the film…don’t think we can stay together for much longer.” “She’s gone insane…bringing her mother over to stay with us…driven out of her son’s house…and bang she arrives in her son-in-law’s house like a pest…” “How am I going to pay back the loan? 50,000 a month…how…how…why did I let them talk me into it? I can’t…can’t…can’t anymore.” “A paper on The Waste Land…we are doomed…it’s so long…and so boring…can’t get anything out of it…Eliot’s personal grouse… why must we suffer…the other group got to do just The Dead…just a short story…it’s so unfair…” “I asked her specifically to take the pill every night…she’s so silly… can’t remember a damn thing…and now…who should I see now to get it done quietly…just before my promotion…the dumb bimbo…and she’s got such a rotting reek in her breath now…” “I think the complete work of Kafka would be a good gift…he’s 17 now…he should love it…it’s on the 16th…can I get a hard cover so fast…paperback would look cheap…” “Ma’s been having the cough for two weeks now…I must take her to the doctor tomorrow…she will never come unless I force her…with the scare now for old people particularly.. I will take a half-day tomorrow and pick her up from home…” “The shares of Safe-Life are crashing down…must sell out and get out of it fast…” “Everything will be shut down soon” … “Bobby is dead…alas…”
It took Pavish Reuk a few seconds to realise that he had, by some long pent-up power that had chosen him now, gained access into the thoughts of the people around him. It was like being struck with a strange virus. He was hearing people speak inside their minds. The voices were criss-crossing the space between his ears like a buzz of busy bugs infecting someplace furiously. The words screamed out of the brains of the dwellers of the metro station, a group of strangers whose lives were now connected by this space-time, by the fear of a common contamination, by the wait for the next train. Pavish Reuk looked around to see if anybody could suspect what he was doing, but nobody in particular was staring at him. Relieved, Pavish walked to the centre of the platform and seated himself on a chair that was surprisingly empty considering the large crowd that had gathered around it. As he sank further deep into the monstrous melting pot of secret thoughts, Pavish remembered the one who could do the same, one he himself had created, and killed: Pratham.
Leaning forward in his chair so as to catch the thoughts better, Pavish looked like a slanted antenna as more and more stories buzzed inside him. Pratham had had a magic stone. For Pavish the sound of a turnstile breaking catapulted him into the belly of a super-sensory universe.
The stories grew out from fear, from secrets, from thoughts never put into words and Pavish Reuk knew right away he was inside the triumph that all artists crave for. He felt like an old typewriter suddenly brought back to life by an incessant clanking away of keys, in this crowded contaminated metro station as a drizzle fell on the floors above. Meanwhile, the two policemen near the signal crossing were walking back to their van. They had been informed of an infected man. One who could spread the disease. And hence had to be captured before it’s too late. Below them Pavish Reuk stood up as he heard the train coming in from a distance. He was full of stories now. He had stolen it all. Triumph, of the purest kind, had finally touched him and he knew he must win this time. Maybe that would redeem Pratham, his death, his failure.
As Pavish Reuk stood up he looked around and saw what he knew he would see. The people around were all looking at him. With sad, infected eyes. Gloomy, masked faces, waiting to slowly die. He was the chosen one now. Despite his unpublished novels, despite his balding head, despite his shrinking frame. The touch of that gaze made him surer of his purpose. He could not go back to failure now. To his loveless home of lack and disappointment. He must win from here. Genius, he had read somewhere a long time ago, lay in the ability to take an infinity of pain. With the smile of a sure man, Pavish Reuk walked to the edge of the platform. The yellow light sped along the rails and became a train. Pavish Reuk jumped into his triumph and disappeared. Outside, it continued to rain.
Avishek Parui (PhD, Durham) is Assistant Professor in English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He researches on storytelling, embodiment, and memory studies and is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan).