Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Puzzle: Identify Mystery Author

I am sick of you people of mystery.
Please tell me who wrote this story, titled informatively "The Desk", unsigned either in the text or in the file properties, and, if the file properties are to be believed, created by the University of Buffalo. If you continue to be coy about your identity, you will not get marks.

The Desk.

“That is so cliched,” said Noori. “That's your idea of a mystery story?”

“You have anything better to offer?” asked Javed. He was clearly irritated. She was so presumptuous sometimes. Like her ideas were all path-breaking. And like his were all crap. If that was so, why wasn't she the one writing to pay their bills?

“I can't blame you. Our life is such a cliché. Everything we say is a cliché. There's nothing new about any of it. So typical we are.”

There she goes again, he thought. Launching forth on her sea of complaints. Boring life, typical life. Nya nya.

“I have an idea,” he said. “Why don't you do something about it? Why don't you write down your lines beforehand, improvise, think of clever new things to say and do, and then rehearse them, before spilling in front of me or anyone else?”

“That wouldn't stop my thoughts from being typical, would it?”

“Do the same with them.”

“But I can't control all my thoughts. Some may be, but not all. At least the initial ones would automatically be conventional. And the ones that come after, the 'refined' ones… well see, the entire process of trying to perfect my thoughts and words and preserve them from conventionality itself is so conventional.”

“Honey, you're mental, you know that?”

“You're the one who's suggesting I do twisted things with my thoughts.”

“I did it to stop you from complaining about silly things.”

“You don't understand my need to break away from conformity. And you're supposed to be a writer!”

Javed decided not to argue and went to get himself a cup of coffee. She's so confused. Her thoughts flit backwards and forwards without following any discernible pattern. And she thinks in such ridiculous illogical ways.

Javed and Noori Azim had been married for four years, and led an ordinary sort of life in an ordinary flat in Mumbai. Javed was a freelance journalist and occasional writer of short stories, which got published in various selections for a small price. They survived off this, because Noori did nothing of any assistance to their finances. Like any other ordinary couple, they had their ups and downs, but mostly downs as time and their relationship progressed.

Javed and Noori began dating as college students, and married soon after they had earned their respective masters degrees. Post-graduation, Noori worked for a year as an air hostess, but gave it up in favour of a more sedentary life after marriage. She had dreamed of being a commercial pilot with a big name in the aviation industry, but her parents didn't have the sort of money needed to put a child through flying school. Nevertheless, her millionaire uncle, who could fly his own little helicopter, had given her a few basic lessons in flying the craft. In the end, though, she settled for the other job. In spite of quitting “apropos of nothing”, as Javed put it, she still dreamt of airplanes. Sitting at home, she had developed certain unhealthy obsessions and psychoses, one of the most important being that her life - their life - was a cliché. She feared that she would die a clichéd death.

Their relationship was as typical as the rest of it. They had started out deeply in love, infinitely compatible, and completely understanding of each other. With the years, their understanding was gradually unwinding, and god knows where their compatibility had gone, or if they had ever had it at all. The strangers in them were growing fast. Javed was irritated by her new mental issues, and wondered where their relationship was heading. No more the days of listening on the phone for hours on end to the miseries besetting her life. The fact that she did nothing to make ends meet did not help matters. He could feel their communication breaking down bit by bit.

“Don't!”

“Why? For god's sake, Anne! I know your name's not Anne, but I just felt like saying it. Anne, why?”

“Move! You stink of booze! Filth,” and she pushed him aside, her hand covering his mouth.

Javed fell back on his pillow with a sigh. He could feel the high begin to recede. This was just not working. “Why are you doing this?”

Oh god, Noori groaned internally. He's so typical, I could write a self-help book for ten million other women.

She must be obsessing about something again, thought Javed. “Will it be okay if I gargle with Listerine?”

“I don't want a minty lover.”

“Then what the f*** do you want?”

Silence.

“I need a holiday.”

“From what? From being on holiday?”

Noori's nostrils flared. “Why do you always have to pack an insult into everything you say?”

“You know what? I think I'll go out for a walk. I can't take this shit.”

“By all means, go!”

Javed pulled on his shirt and picked up his wallet and phone. As the door closed behind him, Noori began to cry.

Their bedroom consisted of a simple wrought-iron bedstead, gifted by Noori's mother to the couple on the occasion of their wedding, a stand-alone wooden almirah that contained Javed's clothes and the couple's important documents and possessions, a wardrobe built into the wall containing Noori's clothes, a small dressing table, a single standing lamp on her side of the bed, a TV and an old desk with a folding chair in front of it. There was a door leading into the living room, and another leading to a balcony that resembled a cage, overlooking a by-lane leading away from Chowpatty Beach. Too bad they couldn't afford an apartment overlooking the beach itself, said Javed. He was mad about the sea. Even the filth on the beach couldn't deter him from running across it and wading in when other men would be watching sport at home or taking their wives and girlfriends out to lunch.

The most interesting piece of furniture in the room, and indeed, in the flat, was undoubtedly the desk. It was an antique made of solid oak, and had been handed down from generation to generation in the Azim family, beginning with Javed's great grandfather, who had been in the service of the Peshwa. After migrating to Maharashtra from Gujarat, he had earned the Peshwa's trust through his dedication and unwavering loyalty, and the desk had been a gift from the great man himself. It had been the Azims' most important piece of movable property for a century, excepting a narrow gold ring with a great Belgian diamond set in it that the Peshwa had gifted to the Begum. This ring had been gifted to Noori on her wedding day by her mother-in-law. She rarely wore it – only on special occasions. It stayed in the locker in Javed's almirah most of the year. But she had no other wedding ring.

Alone in the flat, Noori could hear the thudding from the living room of the flat above. That fat Verma woman must be flopping around again in her old nightdress. She would come down sometimes for a cup of tea with Mrs. Azim. The discussion would always come round to the question of working. And Mrs. Verma would make her usual unsubtle dig at Noori. “Ye bewakoofi thi. Touch wood, agar unhone kabhi kuch kar diya, toh...?” Then she would go back upstairs to be shouted at and occasionally beaten by her ugly, cynical husband. She couldn't help but harbour the strong conviction that if she had had a job, she would have had the guts to walk out. And that Mrs. Azim, having had one and..!

The truth was, Noori herself did not quite know why she had quit her job. May be it was the vague notion that the jetting back and forth from city to city constantly would hamper her marriage, that made her do it. In reality, Javed had no such complexes, but Noori did, and she knew she did. Then there had been the idea that being married to Javed would mean everything would be alright, that he would magically take care of everything, himself and her. I've killed my career deliberately, she would think to herself sometimes, I can't blame him for it. And yet, as the days passed, she couldn't help blaming him more and more, not just for her situation, but for everything else as well. Is this what our marriage is coming to, she would think at other times. What they call a blame game? One day he would beat her like Mr. Verma beat his wife, and then what would she do? She had parents left to go back to, but she wouldn't go back to them – she was too proud. She could look for another job, but all the stress was ageing her fast. They would be on the lookout for fresh faces, just out of one or the other of the airhostess academies. And how would she explain the break in her career? And all of this was... no, she checked herself. I will not use that word again. I must have developed OCD. I need to see a shrink.

They were having another fight. Their fights were getting more frequent and bitter. These were interspersed by periods of calm and love, with nothing worse than a few caustic words and subtle allegations thrown in here and there. Still, tolerable for the most part. Noori was sinking in her own personal pit of psychosis, boredom and blame, bit by bit.

“What do you want from me???”

“I want a normal wife!”

“Oh and you think you're the ideal husband, do you? Who are you to go calling me a…a....” her full lips were trembling.

“What did I say wrong?? Huh?? HUH??” Javed's eyes were starting out of their sockets, and spit was flying with every word. The last was a scream.

“You f*****g have gone frigid! You shouldn't be saying anything!! You're always going on about utter bullshit, and you're telling me, you b****!!”

“Stop calling me filthy names, you jerk!!”

“Oh yeah?? Stop me if you can!!”

“You're such a bully!! You're screaming like a f******g kid!!”

Javed made a grab at her across the bed, but she ducked in time. She reached for the ashtray on the desk and threw it at him. It missed his head by an inch, and shattered against the empty wall space between the wardrobe and the dressing table. Howling by now, she ran around the edge of the bed and out of the bedroom. She shot into the bathroom and locked herself in.

Javed sat down on the bed. He was breathing heavily, panting, almost. Calm yourself, he thought. She's pulling you into her melodrama. Her clichéd melodrama. Oh crap! What am I doing using that word?? She's making me as crazy as herself!

Noori bent over the sink in the bathroom, gasping for breath through her sobs. She needed to do something. It was time to do something. She knew. Turning on the tap, she splashed water all over her pretty swollen face. Then she unlocked the door.

“I'm leaving, Javed.”

Lying across the bed, he grunted in reply.

She stood still looking at him for a second, then rushed to her wardrobe and began to throw some clothes higgledy-piggledy into a large bag. After about fifteen minutes, Javed appeared to register this fact.

“Where are you going to go, may I ask?” he said with a sneer that he didn't feel.

She didn't reply, but continued.

“Going to carry on this drama, are you?”

She said nothing.

“You know how typical this is, then? Every third woman does this. Every third couple end like this. You going to live a cliché, baby?”

He was jabbing where it hurt most. She ceased for a split-second, then continued.

“I can see someone writing our story down. Another story like a hundred others.”

He was sitting up now, watching her with hawk-like eyes. She could feel his keen gaze noting every little movement about her person. She had felt it before, innumerable times, but then it had been a look of love. If a solitary hair had been moved out of place on her head by the gust from the ceiling fan, he would have noticed. Now, it made her feel intensely uncomfortable.

She turned on her heel, and walked out of the room, hoisting the bag on her shoulder as she went.

*****************

Javed was sitting in the living room, working at a story on his laptop. Eighteen weeks had passed since Noori’s dramatic exit. Over those weeks, he had missed her immensely; he had wanted her back. And she was back.

It had been a tough decision for Noori – returning to Javed. During the months of her absence, she had not spoken to him on the phone even a single time. After the first few weeks of shock and intense feelings of betrayal were over, they had been in touch over email. Noori had not told him where she was. It was a grand act of self-control on her part: she had never refrained from telling him anything. But she had known this was something she had to do.

For her, the days had been long and the nights, longer. Her cousin had sub-let a little flat in Chembur to her, and she had found work as a primary school teacher nearby. The money had been small, but enough for a frugal life. Thank heavens for those old degrees, what would she have done without them? In the evenings, she would read alone, or take an auto down to Juhu beach. She would sit there by herself, eating chaat, or walk in the sea with her feet submerged till the ankles. It was a lonely life, but she thought she rather liked it.

But something was festering in her head, and when Javed finally started pleading with her to come back, he didn’t know it. She, who had always been short of self-control, didn’t take long to be convinced. Besides, she missed him intensely. So one fine day, four and a half months after her departure from their apartment, she returned to it.

Noori came in with a slice of cake on a plate and handed it to Javed.

“Did you make this?”

“If I had made a cake, wouldn’t you have been aware of it? It’s not that big a flat.”

“Oh.”

“What’s that you’re writing?” She peered over his shoulder at the laptop screen.

“Oh, nothing, just a story on this old Anglo couple who committed suicide in Bandra last week.” Javed snapped his laptop shut and proceeded to eat his cake. “You know, this thing’s got me intrigued, I think I’ll write a little something on those lines… I need to research their lives.”

“Hmm.”

“Anyway, what’s up baby?”

“Nothing, was just thinking a bit.”

“About?”

“About us.”

Javed gave her a steady look. “And?”

“No, nothing too serious, don’t look so worried.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

“Are you planning to leave again, Noori?”

“No… oh no… it’s just… oh f***.” Noori held her head in her hands as if it were a football, and gave the floor a look full of angst.

“What is it, love?” Javed put his plate down and put his arm around her shoulder.

“It’s just that I’ve created this void in my head, and I can’t fill it up.”

Javed looked puzzled.

“You know, what I’ve told you a hundred times. Our lives, they’re so bloody clichéd.”

“Oh no, not again, Noori.”

“No I mean it... ”

“No, not that old line again, please, love.”

“But I can’t… it’s killing me…”

“Now you’re being a teenager or less.”

“No…”

“Okay listen. I have a plan. We’ll do away with this forever.”

“How?” Noori, who was gradually working herself into a fit, looked sceptical.

“We’ll have someone write a story on us. May be not on paper, but in their heads. In fact, with what I’ve got in mind, several people will be writing stories on us in their heads. May be they’ll do it together, discuss it, work in collaboration. By any means, they will try to reconstruct our lives, because our lives, to them, will be a great mystery.”

“What are you going on about?”

“We’ll do something that’ll make people think. Think about what happened, think about who did it, and why.”

“But…”

“And the stories people come up with cannot be quite as clichéd as the lives we live, can they? There. We’ll have interesting lives, unusual lives, if only in the heads of strangers. But you used to say yourself, back in college, that the lives we live in the imaginations of others are more real than our actual ones, remember?”

Noori was silent.

“So here’s my plan. We’ll take our memories – our closest, most precious memories, and put them in.. say…” – he looked around the room – “that old desk. I know it’s Abba’s precious old desk, but it’ll have to go to serve our purpose. We’ll put them in it, lock it up, and send it off to an auction house. We won’t leave a return address; they won’t be able to trace it back to us. And then they can find our memories for themselves and wonder where they came from and what they mean. Nice, no?” Javed glowed.

“But that’s stupid. Why Abba jaan’s good old desk?”

“Because it’s precious. And it’s a life memory. It’ll carry more weight in their minds. And it’s a goddamn auction house. You need something substantial to send. What else can we send?”

“It’ll be a big loss, that desk will.”

“Can’t help it. We need to fix our lives first, love.”

“Okay.”

He knew she was pleased that it was the desk that was going. She had nothing against it, or his Abba, but in her mind, the desk was a treasure. A treasure for him, a treasure for his family. And the fact that he was sacrificing it for her would heal her troubled mind somewhat. It would reassure her of his love. Javed felt pleased with himself. He could see the end of their problems in sight. The desk as a carrier of their troubles, taking them away from Noori and himself… Good gracious! I’m a real genius, he thought.

He got to work as Noori sat and watched.

“Where’s the ring? The Belgian one.”

“It’s in the locker, of course.”

“Give it to me.”

Noori gasped. “You’re sending off the ring? Are you crazy? That thing costs lakhs! And it’s my only wedding ring!”

“Our memories, hon. Our dearest memories go.” This was another stroke of pure genius on his part, he thought to himself. Taking what he knew was precious to her, not just what she knew was precious to him. Simplifying their lives. Javed gloated in the rationality of his idea. They needed to do something drastic to bring about a drastic change in their lives. In her head.

“Here. What next?”

“Umm…something from our holidays. What about the feather?”

“The one from Jaipur?”

“Yes.”

They had gone to Rajasthan on their honeymoon, and that was when he had given her a lovely long gleaming feather from a peacock’s tail. She found it for him, and it joined the ring in the old desk’s stiff drawer. This was followed by a seashell Javed had found on Chowpatty Beach, and had had made into a key-ring, with the key to the first flat they had ever rented together attached to it.

“Now, darling, a lock of your lovely hair.”

Noori obliged. She was feeling decidedly flattered by now. She got out a pair of scissors and snipped. A long gleaming black curl fell into the drawer as she bent over it.

To top it all off, Javed threw in a little wad of Singaporean money, coming to roughly fifty dollars, which had been left over from a trip they had made after a particularly lucrative month. It had been a fine two weeks in the island nation for them, something they had known they would cherish for years to come. They hated to admit it, but it had been the last time they’d been truly happy together.

Under the name of Harish Manjrekar, Javed called an auction house he had located at the other end of town, and told them that he was shifting from his old bungalow on Malabar Hill to a new flat in Bandra, and wanted to clear away some old ancestral furniture before the move. He wanted to send an ornate old oak desk, which had been in his family for over a hundred years, to them. The man at the other end did not ask too many questions, and readily agreed. He could do with a solid old oak desk. Javed sighed with quiet relief. The conversation was short and quick.

The next day, Javed paid the owner of a matador who lived in the vicinity as handsomely as he could, and packed off the Peshwa’s desk to the auction house he had called. When the matador was out of sight, Javed went upstairs and told Noori triumphantly that the thing was done.

********************

They were on holiday. Javed had decided - as he had begun deciding things of late – that time away together from life in the city would be good for Noori and their ailing relationship. So they had chosen a little town in the Western Himalayas, with a nice little valley on one side of it and a couple of decent hotels overlooking the valley. It wasn’t much, but it would do. And it was all they could afford that month.

Noori looked out the window of their room. A gold-laced, iced range of mountain peaks met her gaze.

“I must say, the view’s damn good at this place.”

“Yeah, we’ve got our money’s worth alright.”

“Uff, it always comes down to the money for you.”

Javed smiled. He was the more monetary-minded of the two. But could he help it? She was never one for looking after their finances. He earned, he kept track. It was alright. That’s how things worked out between people anyway. Javed felt benevolent as he joined her at the window.

“So what are we going to do today, hmm?”

“What about a helicopter ride?”

“A helicopter ride?”

“Yeah, there’s a little helicopter pad somewhere on one of the nearby hills... I was thinking, we could take a jeep there and take a short ride. It’s a grand and a half per hour. What about it, huh?”

“An hour should do it.”

“Great.” Javed rubbed his hands together.

What an organizer he was! Noori thought. He saw to everything.

After breakfast, they hired a jeep down to the pad, and engaged a helicopter. The pilot was a robust young man glowing with health and happiness, and the lilting mountain accent with which he spoke English was charming to hear. He made polite conversation, and Javed and Noori felt themselves a part of his contentment – the general contentment that seemed to pervade the mountain people and their lives. It was all good, Javed thought to himself.

The blades began to whirr, and the helicopter took off. The buzzing was loud, so Noori covered her ears with her hands as she had been wont to do even in the days of her uncle’s ‘copter. The air itself seemed to pulsate with the craft’s vibrations. For the first few minutes, Javed felt a little disconcerted. But as they rose steadily upwards and then soared over the valley towards the mountains, a strange feeling of what could only be described as glee overcame him. This was worth living for. Life had its dirty ways, but what of it?

“Look down, look down, Javed!” Noori cried excitedly.

Javed gasped. They were high up, and the valley lay directly below them. A long deep gash in the side of the mountain range, which truly seemed one body now. Shades of green and brown merged in shadow below. It was like a strange clay model that you would find at the office of the geological survey. Far down, thousands of feet beneath them, a slate river wound snake-like along the bottom of the valley.

“Sir, madam, look ahead,” said the pilot in his pleasant voice.

Directly ahead was the first, and lowest, of the mountain peaks. As the crow flies, it must have been no more than a dozen kilometres from where they hovered.

It was breathtaking. “Can’t we go any further?” Javed asked.

“Just a little further ahead, sir.”

“Okay.”

They flew for another ten minutes, swerving this way and that, but generally moving ahead. The closer the icy peaks got, the faster Javed’s heart beat.

“This is as far as we can go. Now we must turn back,” the pilot told them.

Javed sighed. It was beginning to be over already.

The helicopter swerved right, and began to make a wide u-turn over the valley. Javed leaned against the window, looking out.

Suddenly, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that made him turn sharply towards his right. What he saw amazed him.

Noori was leaning over the back of the pilot’s seat towards the cockpit area, and appeared to be trying to wrest the controls from the pilot. “Madamji, what are you doing!” the man cried. “Sir, control her!”

In the brief blur of seconds that followed, Javed flung himself on Noori and tried to hoist her off the man. She put up a violent struggle, and the pilot, in his attempt to free himself of the crazy woman, let go of the controls.

“What are you doing, Noori?” Javed screamed in the middle of the chaos.

“Making sure the desk can’t be traced back. Let’s just live in their heads now.”

In the tumult, none of them noticed as the helicopter slowly began to catapult downwards.

***The End***

2 comments:

Tamasha said...

Eta toh Pramita'r!

RBC said...

Aha. Thanks for that.