Friday, June 02, 2006

And so it is/ Just like you said it would be.

Wrote a story after years. Practically forgotten what I sounded like outside of advertising. And, just for that, here it is:

My muse doesn’t work Sundays.

My muse doesn’t work Sundays. It’s in the contract. I guess I got conned, but, at the time, I was revelling in the idea of being a card-carrying, muse-using writer, and I figured, ‘Hey, muses probably need to curl up with a beer in front of the telly and watch Super Sunday, too.’ This was before I realised she reserved the Sabbath for moonlighting. More idiot me.

So here I am. Working towards yet another unreasonable deadline, this one, for the ubiquitous GQ-meets-IQ men’s magazine. With a borrowed muse.

Not too bad a proposition, really, because writing with someone else’s muse has a delicately unsettling quality. It’s subtle, but risky; meaningful, but short-term. And, when you’re an angsted-out writer pushing 40, it’s your solitary claim to a clandestine coupling.

I’m not particularly attached to my own muse, if truth be told. She’s a bit overbearing, and, occasionally, predictable. The predictability she blames squarely on my own predilection to writing dark Kafkaesque stories of people who silently rage against their destinies, and, er, die. The overbearingness is all her own, though, she prefers the term ‘assertive’.

Like her I do, but the eye does rove on occasion, fancying a philander with, say, Kundera’s muse, or perhaps, Pamuk’s. I just wonder what it would be like to write with one who truly understands the depth of human suffering –- what sort of motivations would she explore, what kind of questions would she provoke, what kind of emotion would she wring out of me. It’s been a long time since I was wrung.

There I was, lost in a cerebral ménage-à-trois with two muses who have traveled the dark side often, when she arrived. My borrowed muse. Chipper, enthusiastic, briskly cheerful. I remember feeling distinctly tired as she settled into the armchair by the window. Her inquiring gaze, also irritatingly sparrow-like, did nothing to improve my temperament.

‘So, what are we writing about today?’ she trilled. Perhaps I exaggerate, and maybe she did speak normally on that occasion, but it was the overall sense of writing an allegory of rejection and failure with a muse specialising in romantic fiction that I bristled against.

‘It’s an allegory of rejection and failure,’ I bristled self-importantly.

‘Wasn’t that your last story?’ she ventured, revealing she wasn’t quite as ditzy as some of her work implied.

Vaguely flattered, I explained, ‘It’s more of a broad theme to my writing, actually. Individuals living lives of quiet desperation, yearning for meaning, but finding none. I write about the futility of that desire.’

‘You’re the writer, but, in my experience, desire’s seldom futile. It’s usually good for at least a chapter of passion. In fact, if it’s suppressed at the outset, it can be built into a regular crescendo of emotion later. And there’s always the slow burn. Never fails to hold a reader. And quiet desperation’s been done; don’t you watch TV?’

For a muse who used words like ‘seldom’, she really was quite shallow.

Sneaking a look at my watch, I realised that time was of the essence if I planned to get any work done before football. The advantage of living in Third World India was that the earliest kickoff was 6 p.m., thereby providing professional writers with a whole day with which to earn their livelihoods without affecting their soccer dependence. So I hastily put away my judgmental frame of mind, figuring that there was a job to be done, and a muse to do it with, so why not just get on with it?

Backtracking a bit, I said reasonably, ‘Maybe the theme sounds familiar, but I’m quite certain the story won’t.’

She nodded attentively.

I continued, ‘It’s about this guy who won the Bournvita Quiz Contest as a child, and was quite the celebrity, not just in Pune, where he grew up, but also in various quizzing circles and stuff. He’s bright, and had his high school known what a yearbook was, he’d have been voted Most Likely to Succeed. Anyway. So this guy, who seems to have been earmarked for stardom, gets the requisite engineering degree, and moves to the closest City of Gold. Where reality overcomes him.’

She frowned slightly, and I wasn’t able to tell if I’d managed to draw her in, or win her disapproval. In my best collaborative tone, I said, ‘When the story begins, we see him at a nothing job in a nothing company on some forgotten street in Bombay. That fateful morning, he gets sacked, replaced by an under-age college student at half the wages. He walks out of the office, blindly. Walks endlessly, till he finds himself facing the muddy grey waves of the Arabian Sea at the very end of Marine Drive. At that moment, the only thing he wants is to end it all. The high point of the story is the conversation in his head before he does.’

She seemed singularly unimpressed.

Imagining she sought more description of my saga, I injected a note of what I thought was lyrical melancholy into my next words, ‘A sense of dull dejection seems to hang over him like a raincloud. In everything he does, there is a sense of futility, as he sets out to work, climbs onto the 7.15 Churchgate Fast, battles the masses, settles behind his pockmarked desk in the corner of the office. Everything is wasted.’

The singular lack of impression continued. After a long minute, she asked, thoughtfully, it seemed to me, ‘What’s his name?’

‘L,’ I replied. ‘In the long tradition of nameless, faceless characters meant to be Everyman. This way, my reader will, unconsciously, believe it is his story as much as it is L’s. I like to think of him as a twenty-first century successor to K.’

‘It’s an interesting assumption,’ she said softly, leaning back in the armchair. ‘That the less description you provide, the greater identification might occur. As for me, I like to get under the skin of the character. What does he like, what clothes does he wear, what does he do with his weekends, what is the last thing he thinks of at night before he falls asleep. That sort of detail, that tells you what makes him different from the teeming masses, however similar to them he might seem.’

‘We could do that, too,’ I replied, not wanting to antagonise her too early on in the process. After all, she certainly acted more engaged than my regular muse. ‘What he likes are, well, normal things: TV, food, booze. His clothes are regular. Scrupulously clean, but characterless. Boring shirts, readymade trousers. On weekends, he writes home and runs the many errands his nothing job refuse to let him complete during the week. He thinks, continually, whether this is all life will be.’

‘Hmmm, this could lead somewhere. Perhaps, a beautiful single lady moves into the flat opposite. Silent. Somewhat withdrawn. But, inside, quietly desperate. Just like him. She’s trapped in her nine-to-five drudgery, but when she’s alone, behind closed doors, she dreams of freedom and escape. Of hitchhiking along the French Riviera. Of singing karaoke with long-forgotten college friends.’ She paused, somewhat out of breath.

I reeled. Partly horrified, partly astounded, I felt a mild headache start up. ‘No, no,’ I said weakly. ‘No.’

I explained to the muse, ‘There’s no woman living there. It’s a dull, grey hive of single rooms, occupied by impoverished bachelors, sending home Money Orders every month. It’s grim and dark and terminally depressed. There’s no room for, for,… karaoke!’

She grimaced. ‘I suppose he could meet her on the train? Nope, she’d be in the Ladies’. At the station then. Day after day, he sees her familiar brooding visage. And in that expression, he feels a kinship he has never experienced before. He strains to hear her voice as she gently brushes away the pushy vendors and sellers of bindis and hairclips. He watches her as she disappears behind the purdah of the Ladies’ First Class compartment, before tearing his way into the jungle of the common Second, lest he forgo the chance of seeing her alight at Churchgate.’

My headache worsened. ‘You’re not quite getting it. There’s no woman.’

‘Same sex couple then? How progressive.’ She smiled, ‘Must say, I didn’t expect it of you.’

I counted to ten, slowly. ‘There’s no couple. There’s just this one lone guy, doing his lone thing, and, and,… getting miserable about it. How tough is that?’

‘Very,’ she replied earnestly. ‘ Why would anyone read about this chap unless something interesting happened to him. He needs someone to see the unfulfilled potential in him, someone to share his dreams, and hold his hand. He’s looking for deeper meaning, and he finds it in the one he loves. It’s poetic. It’s fulfilling.’

‘It’s crap,’ I said finally. ‘I’m the writer, and I don’t write romantic rubbish. My protagonists live and die miserable, because that is the human condition. They hope for something better, but never find it, and that’s the goddamn plot. Now, are you going to help me write it, or not?’

‘Why can’t they hope for something better, and find it, huh? What’s wrong with rising above the misery and gloom-and-doom and finding something, well, happy? For once in their dull, dreary lives?’ She had worked herself up into quite a snit, something my regular muse would never have done. She’s morally opposed to unnecessary exercise.

I don’t know if it was her earnestness that did it, or just the fact that she seemed so involved. But I found myself thinking about her scenario. Cringing all the while, but considering it nonetheless. ‘Maybe she can love him and leave,’ I offered. ‘That way, he’ll still suffer, and still want to end his life. And it’ll be just another reason for him to be beaten and miserable.’

She looked at me, aghast. My head started pounding a little faster, and I couldn’t remember where I’d left the aspirin.

‘Why?’ she asked, aggrieved. ‘Why must forces conspire against him? All he needs is someone to understand him, and then he can go right ahead and find another nothing job in another nothing place. And he’ll come home to a life that’s superbly something. It’ll give both their lives meaning, and who knows, there could be a sequel.’

‘I don’t want a sequel. I just want an intelligent story for a men’s magazine that explores the human nature. Is that too much to ask for?’ I was beginning to get very depressed.

‘So you have one. It just assumes that human nature doesn’t have to be dull, dreary, and 100% black. What’s the problem with that?’

‘But it isn’t,’ I protested. ‘Suffering is the human condition. Love and happily after is for the birds. Real life doesn’t work that way. It’s a struggle.’

‘The struggle is getting people like you to write stuff people actually want to read. Think about it, if you wanted to actually be a fictional character, who would you be? Darth Vader or Han Solo? Marvin or Arthur Dent? Ross or Joey?’

I was flummoxed. Taking full advantage of my dumbfoundedness, she railed on, ‘I’d take a happy Bridget over a stupid Scarlett anyday, and, you know what, so would a million readers out there.’

‘Aspirin,’ I mumbled. She dispensed a couple, without missing a step. She flipped through my notes, and I watched phrases like ‘a lifetime of futility wasted’ and ‘the universe has an answer, and it is: nothing’ appear and disappear in my angst-ridden scrawl.

‘I hate all of this, but you’re the writer. I’m going to give you one last bit of inspiration, and then I’m off to get my nails done,’ she said shortly. ‘We’re at Marine Drive, and he’s gazing at the waves. It’s sundown, and, in spite of his melancholy, he smiles at the yellows across the horizon. A beautiful young woman walks past with a golden retriever. She smiles back at him. The End.’

Returning to her former brisk self, all traces of involvement and attachment gone, she picks up her shiny black handbag to leave. ‘My bill should arrive by the end of the week. Good luck. And sorry if I derailed your train of thought too much. I just do what I know.’

As the door closed, I started to write my story.

It ends with L watching the sunset. Glumly, of course. Beautiful young woman does make her appearance, shiny black Labrador in tow. The dog sniffs around his park bench, before looking up at him with ridiculous button eyes. She says, puzzled, ‘He isn’t usually so friendly. He must like you.’

He smiles back. (L, not the dog.) Returning the smile, she says, of the dog, ‘He’s been awfully depressed of late.’ He says, quietly, ‘Then I guess we’ve a lot in common.’


Maybe she put something in the aspirin.


The Great Ganesha said...

very nicely written. love the irony...

Sethuraman said...

V'gar just looked up your post ( if indeed that's what they are called). Can't help but say Hi! S.

Lady Writer said...

Hello, S. Somewhat disappointed that you haven't dropped dead as I have fervently wished for a long, long time. Now, go away!

sethuraman said...

V'gar, only the good die young as you must surely know.Anyhow, your wish is my command.

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