Words never fail a writer, only their tenacity does.
It was perhaps her shattered spirit that eluded the labyrinth of letters and parentheses she wished to weave across her yellowing pages, black and blue cursives conveying spiels that had lolled dormant in her mind for far too long.
A long time had passed since she’d written, a very long time indeed. As she sat, trying hard to ideate in the quiescence of the café, she found her mind wandering. She reminisced the days of her camaraderie with the alphabet: the times she had threaded together word after word, effortlessly, relentlessly, until they relayed a poignant tale people swore evoked a tear or two at the very least.
The only person crying now was her.
When had the words turned into such a rigmarole? She couldn’t recall. It had been an hour and forty-three minutes to the second since she had uncapped the ballpoint; alas, the tip was yet to ink the sheet. The pen lay nestled between her thumb and forefinger, oscillating to match the rhythm of the ticking wooden clock. Tick tock. Back and forth. Tick tock. Back and forth. Two hours, and the pasty sheet was still staring back at her, almost as if mocking her inabilities.
Her restiveness was apparent in the way she uncrossed her legs, crossed them the other way only to uncross them again. Finally, she settled on locking her ankles. Arghhh. The groan finally slipped past her lips, succumbing to the frustration that was too difficult to contain. Her chin dropped onto the wooden table with a dull thud, her arm flailing over the edge. The pen escaped her flimsy hold, dithering precariously close to the edge before rolling out onto the café floor; she eyed its rendezvous across the marble until it halted against the wall.
Today was supposed to mark the day of her resurrection as a writer. When she had awoken this morning, she had known that there was a hint of atypical to the day. She could almost taste the renewed hope, tart and crisp in the autumn air. What was more, little cues kept bolstering her spirit – the front page of the daily was slapped with stories of uncanny success; the editor’s word of the day was kismet; her very first published article broke free of the fettering magnet and fluttered to her feet.
And then, when she had stumbled onto the portico of the quaint little café on her way to work, she had thrown caution to the wind. She skipped the mounding pile of vouchers waiting to be reconciled at her stifling cubicle in favor of giving her dream one last chance. She entered, fully intending to ravage the elfin room of its stories lurking about in inconspicuous crevices, the gentle folds of the napkins, the tacit rumination of its customers, the rustic artifacts, the coffee-doused aura and any other undiscovered narratives. She intended to splash them across her book, naked and veracious for everyone to read. The cosmos was clearly trying to imply something.
Or so she had believed. The owner’s disparaging look prompted a strong hopelessness, birthing at the base of her throat like nausea. She tried to swallow it – the precursor of defeat she was all too familiar with. She knew, this time round, it would be twice as hard to placate the despondency. She tried to kindle a sliver of hope, grabbing the first thing her clammy palm could find into a crumpled heap in an attempt to soothe her crushed heart. Nonetheless, the sound ricocheted past her lips.
A single breath outward confirmed that she had let the qualms and trepidations triumph. This daydream would have to be put to rest. She would have to concede to the fact that writing would no longer feature in her tapering repertoire.
She gave the room one last sweeping glance and then, with finality, she picked up the kaput pieces of herself from the couch, scooped up her belongings and guzzled the remnants of her mocha cappuccino before walking out the wooden door. An echo of a shattered fantasy rang through her solemn heart. It was time to be flushed down the corporate gutter.
The witness of her aggravation lay abandoned on the coffee counter, a ten-rupee currency note flapping from under the mug, furrowing across Gandhi’s brow.
The din of the old wooden door clashing against the rusty bell broke his reverie.
He watched his only customer disappear into the tuxedoed and suited chaos that he’d so carefully circumvented all these bygone years of his prime. Yet, he wondered, given a choice, would he go back and do it all differently?
It had been an audacious decision, really. His mother convulsed with anger and an unhealthy dose of displeasure followed suit when she had heard of his “imbecility”. He had anticipated her reaction. However, when his friends failed to comprehend why he’d quit a computer job with a handsome salary and invested his whole worth in a place “basically set up for financial disaster”, he stopped explaining himself. Money had hardly been his concern back then.
He had always imagined owning a café identical to the one he’d been to with his Daddy at the age of eight, where they’d shared their last chai together. Amma’s apprehension about him getting addicted to tea at a young age was perhaps valid, but Daddy was a rebel. They’d sneak out every once in a while, to grab some Irani chai and bun-maska around the street corner.
It had been torn down that year for the place had not been able to make the bills. When he heard of its demolition, he promised himself that he would recreate it someday, no matter the price.
He’d assiduously incorporated every little detail he could remember from that memory into each trivial aspect of Chai Masti, from the name of his café to the fusty furniture and cuckoo clock, to the tempered scent of mildewed tropical rain that ever so often surprised guests who’d dined there. Little did they know that every breath they inhaled was a nostalgic manifestation of his father’s cologne.
Now, the seats were dirty and frayed, the walls fractured, and business was morbidly slow. The entire place was crumbling, bit by bit right in front of his eyes, just like his family all those years ago. Then, it was his age that held him back. Today, he was too incarcerated by paucity to do much. He was hardly any good with repairs.
He never asked his mother why his father left. Even at that young age, he knew his father was in the wrong. He remembered the yelling, the tumblers flying across the room like grenades. He remembered the venomous words his mother spewed at his father, his quiet reception of her abhorrence. His early memories of Sunday mornings consisted of bickering and mud-slinging. Whore. It was during one of those quarrels he had learnt this very first expletive. He had not found the word listed in any dictionary he owned.
After all, not every woman could forgive infidelity. He just wished that his mother had allowed him to stay in his life. He was his father, after all, regardless of his sins. Despite everything he knew, everything his mother had told him albeit sparing the loutish details, he couldn’t bring himself to detest the man, even if only for his mother’s sake. All he knew for certain was that he had been pawned at the expense of their ego. It had been a long time since he’d heard from the man. All he had were some waning memories and this falling-apart café to remember him by.
There was no respite in the past, he had to stop.
With a shake of his head, he proceeded to finish his chores. Usually, he depended on one lanky boy out front to wait on the tables, and one pot-bellied man to orchestrate his recipes back in the kitchen. Any deficiencies in between had to be interceded by him. By and large, it was a one-man army – he had had to cut back help because free cappuccinos weren’t enticing enough to tie them in.
The boy too had taken ill over the past few days, or so he had claimed. That left him to clean up after the young lady who had just exited. He trudged up front and gathered the plate and mug.
“Boss, do minute baahar jaake aaun?” his chef piped out from behind the counter just as he snatched the note from under the mug. It had a rugged coffee enso on it. He nodded distractedly. “Here, have this.” He thrust the note into the old man’s hand on his way back to the kitchen sink.
He was not an old man, that man. Circumstance had merely etched its arduous branches onto his face. He was middle-aged, at best.
The man smiled a small bit upon receiving the paltry sum. This would cover his chai and sutta today. He scratched his belly absentmindedly, throwing off the checkered apron on his way out to the corner stall. It was a two-minute stroll, but his portly frame combined with the heavy commotion on the sidewalk stretched it to at least seven. He did not mind. It gave him more time away from the dingy kitchen.
It wasn’t that he disliked his work, no. In fact, he rather enjoyed cooking. In the good old days, he had fired up sumptuous meals for his entire village when the fields blessed them with a good harvest, or when a young bride was bidding adieu, to the place she had called home.
The predicament here was that there was hardly any work. The place was a sure deadlock; he knew even when he’d accepted the position. The menu lacked originality, the location was far too competitive, the prices were a tad high; it was just the ambience that was its saving grace. But cuckoo clocks and porcelain mugs alone do not draw patrons, day after day.
He had simply acquiesced to the offer because he was desperate, just like all those who settled for the humdrum of a metropolitan existence. There were six children, two women and a greying mother back in his hometown in Punjab who keenly awaited the monthly transfers.
A couple of months earlier, a fire had broken out in the neighboring village. Everything in its path had been scorched down to the ground, generations of toil had been rendered unusable. They had been able to salvage a measly part of their house, but the fields, the cattle, the tractor, the harvest, everything, perished.
There was no use fretting. They were simply thankful that the family had come out unscathed. He had little choice but to set out to start afresh, just like his grandfather had started out on a hundred square foot of land decades before.
So, he wired out money on the first day of every month, regardless of how he managed it. Ennui was the price for survival. Besides, he had put in a word with this gregarious man who shared his shanty little room. A dhaba, that man said, would have a vacancy soon. That was the kind of cooking he was accustomed to, not this English style, tasteless all-day breakfast menu.
“Ek chai aur sutta, Beta,” he said to the lad behind the stall when he arrived. The boy looked well below minimum age to be working, but he didn’t question it. He wasn’t in the habit of prying into other people’s matters. He had enough of his own troubles to deal with without getting in the middle of scrapes.
He alternated between his adrak chai and sutta, watching the traffic burn past on the road. Out of the disarray, a chic car pulled up on the curb and a young man got out, clothed in a crisp navy suit. He carried a brown leather case when he stepped out. A few steps toward the sidewalk, he reconsidered his decision and thrust the case back into the car. With the click of a button on his keychain, he locked the car and ambled assertively toward the stall.
A small, grimy boy followed him, clearly a street urchin. The young man stared down kindly at the boy and gestured for him to choose from the display anything he would like to have. Once the boy had made his pick of two sweet buns, a handful of candy and some chai, the man held out a fifty rupee note.
The lad behind the stall counted out three coins in return and pushed it in his direction. Then, he turned to the paunchy chef and motioned for him to pay off the young man. The crumpled, coffee-stained, cigarette-ashed note exchanged hands before the young man stuffed it in his trouser pocket, climbed into his car and drove off into the city milieu.
The stereo in his car blared a Queen’s track, I’m just a poor boy, from a poor family. He stifled a chuckle at the memory it evoked, of the first boy he had ever dared to ask on a date. They had been in his car, parked in an alleyway next to an old park. The cassette played the rock classics in the background as they conversed.
Back then, his taste in rock music was still considerably raw. When this song had come on, that boy – a beautiful brunette who was a year older than him at the time, had halted conversation mid-sentence to sing along, word for word. One moment had made the memory stand out distinctly in his mind, an interlude that the beautiful boy must have particularly enjoyed, for he had stomped his foot like a defiant five-year old in the passenger seat of his car and laughed a deep, throaty laugh afterwards. In that instance, he knew it would be an image that would haunt him for years to come, perhaps till the end of his life, for it was the first time he fell in love.
The song was a reminder of simpler times in a sense, when courage visited at more than a pinch’s rate and love was purported to be embossed in forevers. Now, he owned a posh house, an expensive car, had a wife, and an insipid career that paid for the former three.
He reached forward and turned on the CD with the western classical tracks, more compatible with his current façade. There was a board meeting he was supposed to turn up to at three o’clock. It was already ten past three, and the office was at least a fifteen-minute drive. He shrugged internally, fashionably late, right? They would just have to wait.
His secretary would have the presentation printed and filed, highlighted too if she had been particularly meticulous that afternoon. He hoped the sales figures had turned out alright; his bonus hinged on it, and so did the sales team’s professional careers. He would make sure of that.
His phone went off in the backseat, a shrill ringtone that he had chosen to particularly annoy him so it would speed up his answering, a tactic he read in some business schmuck’s interview. It now made him wonder what on earth made him comply with such moronic ideas. He guessed it was his secretary phoning to find out when he would be arriving. He pulled up to the corner to answer.
Just as he hung up, there was a tap on his window. A hijra stood by the car, a large smile plastered on their face. When the young man made eye contact, they slapped their hands together in a trademark clap, and subsequently rapped on the glass incessantly.
He had a good mind to step on the accelerator and speed off, that young man, but something prevented him from doing so. Slightly lifting his pelvis off the upholstered seat, he fished for some change, lowered the glass just an inch and stuck out the note he had stuffed in his back pocket.
From the other side, the hijra accepted, blessing the young man with all the prosperity he hadn’t been privy to yet.
They surveyed the note, a frugal handout by an elitist, they thought. The note was soiled with some blue dye, coffee stain, was terribly wrinkly and had a cigarette burn at the edge too! Oof, these rich men were awfully insolent about money. They barely understood destitution. However, as a hijra, they were all too familiar with every aspect of it. They didn’t enjoy the scavenging and begging, no, of course not, but had been born into it by cruel mark of what they called fate. What worse curse to befall a human than to be born sexless?
When they were younger, they found out that their biological parents had forsaken them to their present coterie in order to guard their honor in society. It was the only day they had wept - for themselves, for those who had birthed them, for their brothers and sisters doomed with the same destiny of abandonment, for those who would soon join them, for the hypocritical people who could only digest the ends of a spectrum. Soon, they eased into the identity, found reprieve in it even, that this existence was defined outside of the archetypal norm.
They adjusted the pallu of their saree and thrust the note into the blouse. They had to rush back to the clan. There was a newborn to bless in the neighborhood; she would pay for the group’s monthly groceries.
They rather enjoyed the festivity of birth, though it often reminded some of their kind of the inadequacies of their own. Them, on the other hand, reveled in the fact that despite being shunned, it was them who were considered auspicious. They loved peering at the face of a newborn, so innocuous, not bearing a trace of the convoluted life they would soon be plunged into.
The hijra danced like a possessed person at these functions, until they were sweating profusely and panting for breath.
They scurried along now, to the end of the main road. A bunch of their chums were already there, clapping and singing at the gate. The guard let them in without much protest, probably notified in advance of their arrival. They breezed past the threshold and into the house, ignoring the swarm of people gathered in the living room. They walked up to the baby and the oldest of them touched her head gently. Soon, the troop was capering and humming, clapping and rejoicing.
This hijra broke away from their trance briefly to retrieve the currency note from their blouse, touching a dot of vermillion on it, and placing it in the baby girl’s hand. Then they resumed dancing.
The little girl cackled, squirming in her new crib. Saliva dripped from the corner of her lips, as she attempted to place the money in her mouth.
Fortunately, before she had the chance to swallow it whole, her mother pried it out of her chubby fingers. Placing it on the counter top, the mother forgot to tie down the note with a paperweight. There were other things on her mind right then, like when her husband would arrive, if the food was seasoned right, how much to pay these performers, would her stomach ever flatten post-birth.
So, when a gentle gust of air from the door blew into the home, the ten-rupee note fluttered out the window and into the garden. It rode on the back of a stronger breeze, through the street and then the adjoining one, sojourning temporarily on a car bonnet, before flying right into the path of a hurrying woman. She had just finished yet another harrowing day at work. She had been late, owing to her sudden rendezvous in an artsy café, but had told her boss that her (nonexistent) aunt had been unwell.
For four hours she had verified voucher after voucher, her eyes tiring and arms cramping. Her heart was debilitating from the pre-lunch disappointment but she told herself that she must drag on. All she had to do was get past the day.
One day at a time.
Little did she know that the bothersome paper that flew at her ankle and stuck under her shoe was in fact, her dream inching up to her. When she bent down to retrieve the ten-rupee note, puckered, and stained brown with coffee, mildly seared by a cigarette stub, inked with cloth dye, sullied with vermillion, salivated on and ripped, gathering dust and soot, that she was, in fact, picking up on her story that would be typed out that very night. Her dream was just about to take flight on the back of a ten-rupee note.