Muses over Manholes

The writer walks home, carrying with him his perpetual load. He has left his workplace, his den, from where he dreams of changing the world. The workplace is a nine-by-eleven feet room peopled by protagonists, offenders, law-breakers, murderers, and victims, all who are locked up in a seventeen-inch computer screen. They will exist in the writer’s head and grow there until set free by a publisher. Or by a kind literary agent who has a soft corner for newcomers.

The writer’s pace is slow and unhurried. There is a reason for this. Mumbai rains are here: warm, frantic, and spiritual.

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, and the road blushes black. The branches of trees spread out eagerly. Leaves and water greet each other like long-separated cousins. The trees shake off their sullenness, in drops. They have been sulking ever since the cabbies refused to abide by emission laws. The trees breathe disbelievingly, first slowly, then rhythmically, all the way down to the roots. So the writer imagines and hopes. So also he breathes, using mouth and nostrils.

Cars slow to maneuver through the downpour. There is water filling up at the sides of the road, below the pavement. Car wipers beat maddeningly against the windscreens. They remind the writer of middle-age women on treadmills, trying to work off their flab. Both face resistance from their own systems. Some wipers screech as they clean; some don’t function; some are conspicuous by their absence; they have been ripped off by urchins and traded in for a meal.

The rain drums an incessant beat on the roofs of shops and against their closed metal shutters. Rats – scarier washed than dry – dart for cover. Taxis cruise by. Big-bellied drunkards lurk outside bars, pondering over the merits of another drink. They pull at their cigarettes and let out a little gas. Silently they grapple with their libidos and contemplate discreet addresses. Paan-beediwallas make the last sale of the night.

The pavement glistens like a black polished landscape. The sky above is velvet and watchful. It pours forth its load as though there is a quota to be dispensed. The rainfall is intense, in sheets of silver, which makes it difficult to see beyond a few feet or more. Small brown puddles well up at the side of the road. Motley garbage – bottle caps, papers, plastic wrappers, vegetable and fruit peels – is pelted and crushed by the rain. The sins of the city trickle into manholes not yet choked. The writer reaches the end of the road. He sees a crossroad that divides the East side from the West. There are more trees on the West side. Plus old stone buildings, new skyscrapers, and a police station for safety.

Safety never did much for the imagination, muses the writer. A city must excite, must provoke, he tells himself. Life, like writing, must annihilate to create. He is pleased with himself for such deviant wisdom. The traffic lights blink. They appear to be mocking him, pulling faces the way schoolboys do. Behind him a cough starts.

The cough is hollow and heinous. The writer recognizes the sounds of ill health. Life ignored is life at risk. This could pertain to the old woman he has just passed, coughing on the pavement, or it could hold for the prostitute soliciting on the opposite side of the road, dazed from the drug she has consumed. The drug is afloat in her eyes, her smile.

The cough settles into a deep, hacking rhythm. The writer turns to see the old woman. Her face is a sheet of quiet pain; her hair is white and inflamed; the rest is all bones and ribs. The writer listens to the cough exploding within her. He recognizes the sound of tuberculosis. Living in Mumbai, he has fought millions of germs. He has held a kerchief to his mouth in the face of polluting cabs and trucks. And he has sprinted past urinals and open sewage, holding his breath.

Coughing, the woman struggles to rise. She draws on a bony arm. Her sari falls and reveals her rib cage, and under that her wild beating lungs, a wilting pouch of breast. There is nothing to cover her chest and ribs. And she does not seem to mind, the enemy lodged within.

Still, life’s lingering shred, muses the writer, as he sees her lift her sari and place it over her shoulder. She does this out of habit, as she might have done in younger years.

For me, nothing, not even a shred of hope, the writer thinks. The publishers don’t even call him by name any more. Dear Author, we regret to inform you – he has read this even before the postman has had time to collect his breath and retreat down the staircase. Earlier, the writer used to memorize the compliments. He used to preserve and breathe in the balms, sweetly, naively, for days. While we must compliment you on a lively sense of observation, we regret your work does not fit our list. Sometimes it specified fit, mellowed it by saying at this point in time. Sometimes it encouraged him to submit elsewhere. Most times, he stayed humble in his replies. Thank you, sir, for the time spent. If you could volunteer an insight, I would be grateful, very grateful.

That’s when they stopped writing to him, snuffed him out like he never existed. That’s when he broke. You realize, sir,what you are holding: a 21 century version of Catcher in the Rye.

For three years he wrote, and for three years it kept coming back. Regrets only: they wrote the book on that! It was like there was some pact with the post office. Like even the postmaster knew the book was going nowhere. “Thank you, Mr. Postman,” he was tempted to say. “Thank you for bringing back the manuscript. Print-outs are expensive, you know.”

The last was the unkindest cut of all. He felt like a Caesar betrayed, a Timon spurned, Lear raging in a storm. We are pleased to accept your manuscript and look forward to sharing our best services for success. There was an expensive-looking brochure printed in extraordinary colors. The paper was rich and glossy, achieved at the expense of some poor sacrificial writer. Or should he say “customer,” since all rights were forsaken once that decision was made? Once you paid to get laid, the principle being the same.

Like a persistent tout, the brochure spoke and adhered to his ear. It whispered promises he didn’t want to hear: “Cut out the misery once and for all; cut out this coupon now. The only thing that stands between you and your future is your pride. The greatest enemy of your talent is you. Why worry about the outcome when you have found an outlet?”

He was smart enough to realize the conspiracy of forces working against him. Not just the publishers who had failed to recognize his worth, and agents too busy with known names, referrals, deals, but his own characters whom he had nurtured adoringly, patiently, sacrificing meals, sleep, and the comfort of a secure job. He had given them lives beyond ordinary fates, added on traits that would be discussed in classrooms. Pomp and success he had dreamt of for them. Like a true father, he was willing to bequeath all.

Yet, they had let him down. Like adolescent sons, they had betrayed him. They had failed to get themselves a career or a life, let alone immortality. The only thing real were the tears streaming down his cheeks, the rain on his face, and the brochure, which he clutched in his hand, creased, because he had read it thrice already.

There was a line in it that had led him to consider the option. “We hope to mature you into one of our finest writers.” Of course there’d be a fee, a pre-editorial fee, to begin with.

If there was a past life, it had caught up with him. If there was an afterlife, it beckoned now. Eventually, everything down the tube, he thought. Because he couldn’t be like Steinbeck and pick grapes from an orchard. He couldn’t serve the earth endlessly and all who lived on it. He couldn’t do that, because his own orchard (in which his creativity grew) was too big and too wide, and the grapes were always sour – unfailingly.

He lit a cigarette and, cupping it, pulled till the tip blazed. He watched the water at the side of the road rush toward an open manhole. The lid of the manhole was lying at the side. It was brown and rusted, like a giant discarded cookie.

The water flowed toward the manhole, carrying the guck with it. The guck fell over the side and disappeared. Truly, thought the writer, what is not seen is not believed. That is as true of sanitation as of writing.

He took three quick puffs of his cigarette. The rain fluttered like window drapes in a storm. It was playing with the city. He could feel a chill at the back of his neck and on his ears. He exhaled smoke over the manhole. It dispersed like a phantom fog. Smoke and water fought each other for supremacy. Smoke lost. It was subdued by the rain. He dropped the cigarette, wet now, into the manhole. Then he crushed the brochure and flung it in as well. He watched the water swirl over it and gobble it. Instantly he felt regret. We hope to mature you into one of our finest writers yet.

A scooter screeched past. It had three occupants, all boys, clinging to each other, and they called joyously to the writer. He waved back sportingly. At least they had the weather to celebrate, he thought. The scooter skidded, regained control, and disappeared. The road appeared empty. The buildings looked deserted. The writer dropped to his knees, at the mouth of the manhole, and with quivering lips, said, “Forgive me Lord, if I appear ungrateful.” The water continued to trickle into the manhole. As it fell, it made a deep gargling sound.

A fire engine tore through the night – a savage, blatant red riding hood, shrieking right of way. On board, the firemen donned their clothes. The ladder was halfway up: hope on an improbable night. In the distance, the cough started again, the same cough, continuous and weary. The rain poured in gray, unforgiving sheets.

An hour or two later a municipality worker would appear. His trousers would be rolled up; in his hand he’d carry a long, thin rod with a loop at the end. He’d use this to dig into the manhole, to dislodge any rubbish stuck there. The water inside would churn like a python emerging from hibernation. But the writer wouldn’t be there to see this. He’d have moved on.

The next day would be declared a holiday. Urchins would rush out to swim in the floods. They would splash alongside red double-decker buses, grinding their way through murky-brown water. They would be joined by bare-chested youths, who’d swim on their stomachs, nosedive, and come up for air each time a woman passed. The youths would splash the woman, again and again, until her sari clung indistinguishably against her skin. Until they saw what they knew was there.

The rain would pour; gutters would choke; water levels would rise. People would stay indoors and find a million ways to relax. Living rooms would erupt in a blaze of cricket matches and Formula One races. Men would wrench open beer cans. Wives would scramble to rearrange the menus. Neighbors would drop in with bhajiyas and vadas. The older boys would play volleyball in the rain. Like incensed cheetahs, they would leap at the ball and scream pass, pass to each other. The girls would phone their boyfriends and whisper about where to meet and for how long. They’d drop their voices if their parents approached. The kids would eye the remote control and resent their fathers’ presence. Staying away from cartoon network wasn’t funny.

By afternoon, the parked cars would disappear underwater. The newspapers would remember to get the picture but not the story. Why bother? It was the same story every year.

By evening, a dull gray cast would appear in the sky. It would spread and obliterate heaven from earth, earth from all understanding. The sound of thunder would roll, crash, and reverberate across the city. Sensitive men would feel it in their balls. Less sensitive men would shut their ears. This is how the earth would be tested. How much of black rain can it take, how much of lashing before dawn, before the final cleansing? Streaks of lighting would flash by windows. It would startle babies and make them cry, and light up the faces of forbidden love.

The writer would be back in his workroom. He’d be sending out emails, query letters, and synopses. He’d change the wordings, more aggressive this time, like the weather, and he’d chip away in Word, and then hit “send” in Microsoft Outlook, and he’d go “yes, yes, yes,” if it went through. And in case it didn’t – it bounced back for some reason like “server connection cannot be established” or “sender unknown” – he’d make a note to resend it later. He’d do so without feeling wronged or misunderstood, without feeling oppressed. For it was only the server that had rejected him and not the recipient, and that he could endure.

Like the weather, that too would change.

Murzban F. Shroff