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The thin line between desperation and success

After years of blogging, I have decided to make a transition to short-stories. Here's my first shot at it...

The hangman’s noose dangled from the ceiling.

He placed a chair beneath it and climbed, wearing it around his neck, like a garland. Life had to end, prolonging it meant little sense. Although the urge had been at the back of his mind for a while, the catalyst was a newly-arrived e-mail.

“We at Polar Bear Books deeply appreciate you for expressing interest in us and sending us the manuscript of your work. However, as we are beset by financial difficulties…”

“… We are constrained to reject it,” he muttered as he clicked ‘delete’ and swore under his breath. The pattern was getting all-too familiar. Initial messages or mails of solicitation were invariably followed up with that of regret.

By now, he had sent manuscripts to every publication house worth its salt. From the industry’s biggest and most influential, to the ones at the bottom of the heap, it was as if everyone had a similar template of a response.

“That’s another stone dropped in the well,” he sighed. “My writing is pabulum – unfit for to be read on paper. Why else would they express regret in unison?” he thought. “Whenever my writing was labelled poor, I have always transformed. How much more…”

As he reflected thus, his eyes scanned the dilapidated room that had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. Only a reconstruction would have been fit. With any such suggestion kosher to its owner, there was a quid-pro-quo: cheap rent for lodging, but with low-habitability quotient. He accepted the offer gleefully, given the near-dormancy in his career.

And that always brought back memories of a painful childhood.

The house-owner had also been his guardian ever since his parents passed away. His mother died while delivering him in the hospital. This enraged his father, who blamed his son for his wife’s death and turned an alcoholic. Beatings were always in abundance, and provided in innovative ways.

An English teacher, he forced his son to memorize passages from Shakespeare’s plays at a very early age. Any error meant that his ears were twisted, his hair pulled at and knocks delivered on his head. It was ironical that the Wren and Martin English primer would prove a handy shield during his father’s outbursts of rage. This led to him developing a rare sense of humour. When the beatings rain on him, he would say, “The quality of mercy… blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” However, there was never a reprising of that scene from the Merchant of Venice.

Since then, he was convinced that Shakespeare was the biggest phoney.

Greater the intoxication levels, so were the levels of pain. He was used to getting kicked out of bed in the dead of the night and made to recite passages from the Bard’s plays. Friends, Romans, countrymen. I come to bury Caesar, not praise him…” he would drone on until his father slumped.

The only appreciation was in the form of absence of beatings.

One day his father said after an evaluation: “I don’t know which makes for a bigger tragedy: your poor grasp of Shakespeare or your imperfect grammar. Your précis on his works is pabulum, a Hamletian tragedy.” The father flung his son’s exercise book in disgust.

Instinctively, he lunged for the primer and closed his eyes, expecting a thrashing; but his father stormed out. He cowed inside his room in fear, expecting a thrashing. That was, however, not to happen: the next day’s papers carried front-page reports on how an alcoholic was mowed down by a truck. “Dipsomaniac meets death,” was the headline on one.

And that was also the last of his English lessons.

As he looked up he imagined that the roof had served target practice for the Red Army; sunrise and heat could be discerned through its many holes. Every time it rained, it was as if someone had turned open a giant bathing faucet. Water, pebbles, and even tadpoles, would gush in at the slightest hint of rain.

The walls, however, offered him perennial solace. They may not have had a coat of paint for time immemorial, but he adorned them with posters of personalities and quotable quotes to mask its grotesqueness. His favourite arrangement was that of the posters of Osho, with his face averted to that of Madonna in itsy-bitsy clothing, with a grimacing Mike Tyson providing them company. The quote “Work hard for what you want because it won’t come to you without a fight”, completed the arrangement. Every time he looked at it, a smile passed through his lips, always. Even now.

That took him back in time to his days as a reporter, and the admonitions from his editor for his copies, or news reports. “Your lede should have the gist of the copy,” the editor would cringe. “It should convince readers to dive into it. Why should it be mundane when you have an attention-grabbing specific within the copy?”

The editor would then read out key portions of the copy to him: “‘It is too early to say which party we will ally with during the elections… Any speculation of an electoral alliance is foolish, as we stand to benefit by going alone.’ Which of these statements are quirky enough to grab your attention?” For some reason, he would always make a 180-degree-departure from his instinct in his reply. The editor would go on: “Give an insipid lede, and chances are even the sub-editor who examines your copy will bury it in an inside page.”

He would always nod his head at the suggestion; not that he had a choice, but it was that he felt a valid point was made. “Do not make me re-write your copies. I can’t be explaining your poor wordplay to the editorial.”

A telephone call one day made him re-consider his style of writing. It was the editor who was irritated than usual, and that meant a tongue-lashing was on the cards. “Even by your exceptionally low standards, your copy has been pathetic. I don’t know what to make of it and where to begin rewriting it. Can’t you make the distinction between ‘atrophy’ and ‘a trophy’? I am killing your copy. Henceforth, I won’t be clearing them to the editorial.” The phone clicked at the other end.

He wished he had been slapped on his face instead.

The rumination began as soon as the sting from the rebuke lifted.
It was the love of writing that got him here, but now he was running from it. Something was terribly wrong. He knew that he had to act fast.

The rap, thankfully, had an unintended effect: it opened his eyes to a plethora of writing styles. He made it a point to observe the written word. With time, he started assimilating all forms of printed material – every word and pun – around him, from even the scraps with which road-side vendors served food-stuffs.

And that led him to the essence of writing – communicating the maximum with the minimum. The evolution was firmly set in place.

It wasn’t that he did not notice but he did not care: the calls for clarification from the editorial stopped. In a month, his copies started making it effortlessly to the front-page. As the years passed by, no longer were his copies treated warily; it was time for him to move on.

He requested for a meeting with the editor one day, and handed him a characteristically-short resignation letter. “Please relieve of my duties.” The editor responded in kind: “Duly accepted.”

Not a smile was exchanged as they shook hands one last time.

His heart started pounding as he stepped out. “My writing will be independent; no one can dictate terms to me,” he thought and grinned from ear-to-ear. He realized he wasn’t walking but running at half-pace.

The chair creaked; he shifted his weight from one leg to another as he adjusted the noose. A few more minutes, and it will all end, he thought.

Back home, with the ink on his resignation letter still fresh, he charted out plans for his career. Something had to be done, but he did not know what. He dawdled and brainstormed, and once again dawdled. A couple of days later, when he nearly gave up planning he received a phone call from someone who introduced himself as “a well-known person in the publishing circles”. The person was guarded about his identity, and sought an appointment with him.

During the rendezvous the hesitant person introduced himself as the owner of a leading erotica magazine. He did not know whether to laugh or cry. “Perhaps there has been a mistake,” he said. “I don’t think I’m the person you are looking for.” The person sprang a second surprise even before his voice trailed off. “I think so. In fact, I am looking for someone who can help me revive my publication.”

The publisher continued: “I’d rather print pictures of nude models on all pages, but then the internet has ensured that porn is as abundant as air or water. I need someone who can offer me serious content. No journalist is willing to work with me. Will you?”

The offer seemed challenging as well as tantalizing. He acquiesced instantly. After all, here was an opportunity. He was made the magazine’s editor. A quantum leap for a journalist, he thought.

The mandate was challenging, but he relished every bit of it. He began to write on issues galore – from foreign policy to national security and agriculture. His work would have found place of prominence in any other publication, but here it was sandwiched between content that appealed to the baser instincts (“cleavage of clarity juxtaposed with the bosoms of nonsense”, as he thought dryly). His writings, usually incisive, were fit to print, and started acquiring attention.

Sniggers greeted him wherever he went; at first he laughed it off, but soon he developed the thick-skin to brush it aside. After all, he had vindication in the form of north-ward bound circulation indices.

The owner was only glad to hand him a free run. Social media ran amok with jokes about how policy makers were influenced by the magazine. The jokes attributed the government’s family-planning and contraceptive drives to it.
It wasn’t too long before the international media got wind of the situation. The New York Times did an article, titled “have balls, have gall”. It goaded American magazines such as Playboy to follow a similar work ethic. In a commentary titled “standing erect”, The Guardian commended the magazine for its no-nonsense stance on issues aplenty. The opposition political parties, too, rubbed it in, saying the government lacks the maturity and clairvoyance that even a porn magazine possessed.

Helped by the wave of publicity, the magazine went in for a re-branding exercise, and got itself the tagline of “serving contemporary issues, of the heart and the mind”. It was as if nothing could go wrong. The sniggers were replaced with awe and appreciation.
It wasn’t too long before the government struck back, and it struck hard. Its assets were seized, and its owner jailed on trumped-up charges of trying to destabilize the government. The owner was offered a chance to go free if he could discredit the editor, which he did without batting an eyelid. He was bracketed with the likes of Khalistan and PoK movement leaders and jailed on charges of sedition.

Suddenly, the government emerged smelling of roses.

Not much outrage was expressed this time. The invitations to literary events started receding, and after a while, stopped altogether. The same writers who were singing his paeans were now penning elegies. Newspapers no more sought his works for re-publication. It was as if everyone else existed in a parallel universe, eons away.

The isolation was setting in. The suicidal tendencies started taking root.

Discredited but eager, he began to pick himself up once out of jail. He dabbled in a host of genres, impassionately as ever. Some of his works included a treatise on writer’s block, and an analysis of the ills of the education system. There was one hitch, though: the inability to publish. Publishers were not willing to touch him even with a cattle-prod.

Wearily, he decided to circumvent the hitch by starting a blog. The blogosphere enabled him to open up like never before. The creative juices began to flow in torrents: as essays, short stories or social commentaries. It wasn’t too long before he became a social-media sensation. The appreciation was there, in the form of likes, shares and re-tweets, but not the satisfaction. He yearned for more. He wanted to author a book, though he could not put a finger on what.

Regimes changed, but his run-in with the government ensured that he was always a marked-man. His social media accounts were getting hacked and replaced with graffiti or offensive content. This was followed by trysts with the law enforcement agencies. Police barged into his room and removed the hard-disk from his computer. It was returned sterile, which meant all of his lifetime's hard work was gone. The excuse trotted out was, here was a man bent on de-stabilising the nation, and hence, had to be kept on a leash. After a series of jail sentences and illegal tortures, he decided that maintaining an online presence was not worthwhile. He became a recluse, online and offline.
The mail was the proverbial last straw.

With a sense of finality, he took a deep breath and stared ahead. The noose was tightly-bound. He halted for a moment before he kicked away the chair on which he stood. Death was a mere seconds away.

He clenched his arms, determined not to raise them above waist-level. Images of his father, the magazine owner, hypocritical government officials and policemen streamed across… nothing worth reminiscing. He reacted thus for nearly a minute, when he let out one final gasp. No more criticism.

Finally, he was beyond reproach, coercive forces or unhappiness. No one could suppress him.

As if by clockwork, a sound emerged from the computer. He had forgotten to turn it off, besides what was the need for such trifles? If he had read it, he would have known that an international literary committee had named him for a lifetime achievement award.

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