This was the fourth time in a row that it had happened, and I speculated if I should seriously reflect on the proceedings. Had my decision been right after all? Probably, moving out at the very outset with an unsteady job had been somewhat irrational. Jobs were few, vacancies fewer, and loosing out on the fourth one in two years, the last one having lasted barely a week or so, was not exactly the most motivational premise on which I could hope to start afresh. ‘Dejection’ seemed too inadequate a word to describe my mental state, as precarious as a tower of cards and susceptible to topple at the touch of a feather.
To make my misery appear more realistic it started to rain, proving further that even God enjoys being thespian at the wrong moments…
Snaky rivulets took the form of proper streams, deluging the roads as the sluice drains overflowed in no time. The air was dappled with strange-smelling flavours – of the moist earth with a snatch of perfume from a bunch of roses and marigolds in an abandoned wickerwork basket, of thick, warm smoke from some decrepit automobile amalgamated with the tantalizing aroma of fried refreshments and condiments from roadside eateries, and that of rejuvenated foliage and many steaming cups of tea. Ordinarily, I would have enjoyed this unexpected March shower but today this aberration was irksome. Everything around me seemed to echo discord in sync with the pall of ignominy that loomed above my head.
Unexpected as the downpour was, I had not carried my umbrella. My half-wet clothes were like layers of moss clinging onto the damp walls of my body, with channels trickling down the crevasses of my sleeves. I stood on the sidewalk, one foot on the ground and another on the stairs of a bookstore, trying to maintain my balance with ten other people jostling for the little space that was barely dry under the protruding eaves. The roads had been engulfed by a thick haze of smoke and rain, with the bleary headlights being the only signs of vehicles going past. My mind was in a zwodder, and my body ached for repose with a slight temperature. More and more people started to fill in around the place and the number of feet multiplied by fours and eights – sodden, mud-splattered and smelling something of dead fish and sewage water. The increasing furor resulted in a head-splitting ache, and the sudden bursts of headlights resembling blobs of distorted oranges hanging in the mistiness hurt my eyes. While desperately looking around for a better place to escape to, I ended up stepping on someone’s foot instead. The victimized expressed his grievance in none too mild terms, signaling that it was time I looked for some other corner to retreat.
A light wave of cool air distracted us the moment the glass door swung open. As a few people came out, I got the opportunity to notice that the bookstore was far less crowded than the place where I was standing. In spite of the air conditioning and my soaked clothes, I decided to seek shelter within. There was no indication of the rain stopping anytime soon, and I reasoned that sometime spent in the company of books might help ward off my morbidity. The moment I stepped in, I was acutely made aware of my dismal condition. I cringed when I saw the perfect rubber stamp-like impressions my shoes made with the ink of brown mud on the marble floor. The security guard gave me a disgruntled looked as he motioned for my side bag and mumbled something about using the doormat. The ambience was so impersonal and affluent that it instantly reminded me of the mere two hundred rupee notes and few stray changes that I had with me.
The air conditioning proved to be a bane, for although it dried my clothes, the breeze was equivalent to needles pricking mercilessly from all sides. With each waft, my insides shivered and my outsides goose-fleshed, reflecting hues of coral. I looked about helplessly for a warmer corner, but there happened to be none anywhere. There was a winding staircase at one end which led to the upper floor cafeteria. I was loathe to spend money there, but I reasoned that if I did not have a cup of something hot sliding down my throat, I would probably pass out any moment. I recalled how I had previously been here, treated my friends to chocolate fudge and coffee after I received the appointment letter for my first job. Now four jobs later I was disillusioned and penniless with a number of unpaid bills staring at my face.
Thinking of buying the cheapest cup of coffee that would be available, I turned sharply towards the stairs and collided headlong into someone. A number of books spilled over from the person’s hands, falling around me and at my feet. The quiet of the bookstore was disrupted as a number of people came rushing to see what the matter was, among whom was the security fellow. He gave me an unpleasant look which made it evident that he thought that I brought about trouble wherever I went. Everyone was speaking at the same time which molded into a cluster of low, buzzing drone of admonition and sympathies. I tired to appear as apologetic as I could, and attempted to help the person with the books. She was a woman in her late twenties or early thirties, clad in an inexpensive yellow cotton shirt with prints like thin arrowroot biscuits and a bluish gray pair of pants. One of the heels of her sandals seemed to have twisted which came across as being the real reason behind the accident.
“It was my mistake,” she said addressing the crowd. “I was trying to bite more than I could chew, which resulted in this.”
She smiled, but I could tell that not many people had understood the meaning of her words for they looked bemused.
“But I am not hurt, and it was not her fault either,” she said throwing me a casual glance. She seemed to be some celebrated persona, for the manager himself came to make sure if everything was alright. I tried to recall if she was some littérateur who had risen into prominence after writing some trashy romance novel in the recent past; the market seemed to be overflowing with such ‘writers’ these days. Or she could have been some genuine scholar although her bearing did not betray that.
“It is fine. You don’t have to bother…” she said quickly as I bent to pick up her books.
She knelt down, mumbling indistinctly, and looked around with searching eyes.
“Are you looking for something, Ma’am?” I asked.
“Yes. A thin, white hardcover book. Must have slipped in somewhere…”
I got on all fours, peering under the tables and the bookshelves when I saw a shadow and reaching out caught an end of the book. On pulling it out, I was surprised by degrees at the book I was holding, smeared with a thin coat of dust.
“Yes, this is the one!” she smiled. “Thank you so much. I’m afraid I put you into a lot of trouble.”
“Not at all,” I said and on an afterthought, asked with some skepticism, “Where did you get this one? I did not happen to see it anywhere…”
“What? Oh!” she remarked absently, adjusting her books properly. “I’m afraid this was the only copy left. It was kept in a remote corner on the bookshelf there.”
She pointed vaguely at some corner which I did not bother to check.
“Do you happen to know this…poet?” I asked, indicating the white hardcover book although I knew beforehand what the answer would be.
“No. She seems to be an amateur,” she said. “A college student at the most. I don’t think a lot of copies were even published. I asked the manager – he told me that it did not sell, so they did not bring in more. But I read a few and found them to be very different from other conventional poems.”
“How different?” I asked.
“It is a very slender collection, but it does not have those high-flowing pedantic words which beginners use to make their poems more artistic,” she said, lowering her pile of books on a nearby reading table and wrenching her fingers.
“On the contrary, they are regular words, but used so appropriately that they create a sort of music as you read them,” she continued, “Very lyrical, if you ask me.”
I was standing there, but my mind had long riveted into things past – the dejection after coming to know that only twenty two copies had sold out, and the promise I had made to myself of never writing anything ever again. My romanticized concepts had no place in this world of nine to five jobs, I had told myself, and it was with great difficulty that I had decided to get on with life like millions of other average people did. Four jobs later, had it been worthwhile to have asphyxiated my ambitions all at once the way I did?
Grabbing a chair, I sat down, being suddenly seized with a strange tipsiness. Everything around me seemed to be dissolving rapidly into oblivion, into a blur, and I was like the only untouched object at the center. It was like being at the nucleus of a whirlpool of thoughts. I did not know what lay ahead of me and I could not change what I had left behind, but in this lack of equilibrium, somewhere…I had found my axis.
The rain outside seemed to have stopped for some time. The traffic was coming around like uncertain children, one foot after another with a lookout for changes in the sky. The leaves of the trees along the road sparkled with vitality like a cluster of emeralds. I walked along the waterlogged footpaths in my clammy garments and sodden shoes, feeling surprisingly warm in spite having no hot beverage. The sky that usually wore a gloomy wrap of gray was like a clear blue expanse of satin, and at a very remote corner was a flamboyant haze.
A rainbow. Not particularly clear, but clear enough to make its presence felt.
20 March 2014