When C.S. Pillai woke up on the morning of 21st may, there was a letter awaiting him in the mail. This much the missus informed him while plonking down a big bowl of rasam in front of him, which was the usual breakfast, or rather, the staple diet of the family. Mr. Pillai hardly got any mail, so a full letter addressed to him was quite an event. The children were curious, and the missus was curious. And Mr. Pillai himself was all nerves.
Suddenly the door bell rang and Mr. Shekhar announced himself. Wearing his keds, doing warm-up exercises near the door; he had come to invite Mr. Pillai for an early morning game of tennis. When he heard about the letter, he became edgy too. A personal letter was a rarity in this small coastal town.
With proper care, the letter was opened as if it were the fragile papyrus of the Egyptians discovered by some amateurish scientist. And a gleam of joy lit Mr. Pillai’s eyes. A letter addressed to him from Mr. Kapur, the editor-in-chief of the Chennai express, the magazine for the elite. Mr. Shekhar read it out aloud.
‘Dear Mr. Pillai, the Chennai express would be really honored if you contributed an article for this month’s issue. Your story about the man who turned into an insect has been doing the rounds and I found it rather fantastic. Mr. d told me about it. Plus, we receive your fan mail on a regular basis, so we decided to welcome you into the Chennai express family.’
This was an occasion beyond doubt that required not the daily bowl of rasam, but the greasy, extra-sweet gulab-jamun from Pappan’s mithai shop. Gorging on a sweet, Mr. Shekhar told Pillai how delighted he was about the Chennai express thing. Never mind the game of tennis. Plus, he had dropped a bit of nectar like chasni on his keds.
Soon, the news spread like wildfire. Relatives called, friends poured in, everyone discussed Pillai’s poetic genius and his great story about the man who turned into an insect. Now, one of the best things about a small coastal town is that no one is very well read. And certainly no one reads Kafka or Sartre. So if you were to take one of Kafka’s story, say ‘The Metamorphosis’, and turn it into the tale of Pappan Pillai, the man who turned into an insect, no one would really notice. And suddenly, you were a literary genius.
It was an overwhelming feeling to have all the attention; certainly a thing that C.S. Pillai had craved for all his life. But now, he was plagued by the thought of having to write an actual story. And that too for the Chennai express, where columnists were either eco-feminists, communists, Trotskyists, absurdists or people with the many ists and gists about them.
The missus plonked down another bowl of rasam in front of him. She was in a generous mood today, because one of the visiting relatives had brought for her, a brand new sari, and so along with the rasam today, there were the idlis. But Mr. Pillai felt that he could not eat.
He needed a walk to clear his mind, so that he could think about the story he had to write. He looked around in his house-there was the missus in the kitchen with copious quantities of rasam and the son, Sonu with a book of M.l. Aggarwal open in front of him. There was no material for literary creation available in his house.
The breeze outside was refreshing, so was the scenery. Today, Mr. Pillai viewed everything with the eye of an artist. How did other artists get inspired? From little scenes, mundane routines and then they created something out of that. Pillai felt that he should do the same. He was on the lookout for a scene of humdrum existence, and he could possibly chronicle the life of the poor in this coastal town.
So, when he saw Haru sitting with his daily ware around him, he felt moved. No one knew why Haru was called Haru. Haru he was just called, and was known for selling the best gutkha in town. He gave you a deal, a gutkha and a paan in just 3 rupees, and for the price of another rupee, you could add a cigarette to it. Haru was sitting today, and with his one good eye, reading one racy, slightly pornographic thriller (the cover displayed a woman in brassiere holding a gun).
There was the usual pile of tobacco products spread in front of him, and his tin box in which he collected the money, was standing proudly in one corner. Mr. Pillai felt that Haru would be a perfect subject for a story. But he could not think of any plot. He could not lift the plot from another writer this time. No, the Chennai express was run by very well-read people.
He could not risk humiliation. Mr. Pillai was losing hope in his powers as an artist. He felt so low that he felt like Haru. But then he reminded himself that he was a born writer. Why, as a young child, he had composed a poem on a beetle, written it on a leaf, and showed it to his teacher, Mr. Iyer with the shining pate, who thought it was marvelous.
‘Little beetle, little Henry,
Roaming midst the flowers so pink,
Little Henry, little beetle,
Tell me what do you think?’
Surely, such genius could not be overlooked. And what about that love song he wrote for the missus of his, when they were in college. A song dedicated to her brows! Did it not lead her to marry him? Could he not write about one of his favorite writers or musicians? He could write about the Beatles. Why, he knew a lot about them. He knew that John had cheated on his wife with Yoko Ono.
Somehow, when great men cheated on their wives, it gave a license to common men also. Why, Bill Clinton cheated on Hilary and then he said sorry. As if sorry could erase the fact that he had cheated on her. But other men discussed it in offices, while standing at bus-stops, at the local library; they discussed the follies of their sex, in a sort of proud, affectionate way.
Pillai knew he could not write about the Beatles, or the beatniks, or counter cultures or revolutions. The Chennai express people knew more than him certainly. All his life, he had projected this aura of being an atheist, a Beatles-loving philistine. No Carnatic music for him, only the songs of The Who, the carpenters, the Beatles. And all the poets he proclaimed to have read! Why, only yesterday, he had told Mr. Shekhar that Homer was the greatest poet to have ever lived.
And Mr. Pillai knew that Mr. Shekhar knew not who Homer was. Not many people did in this town. And Mr. Pillai himself had never read Homer. It was just the name he had heard, as with the other names. The names helped turn Mr. Pillai into a local hero, a genius, an intellectual, one you did not want to converse with, for you knew not what names he could throw your way.
In life, there are always people who know more than you, and people who do not know more than you. The former throw names at you and you throw names upon the latter. And Mr. Pillai knew all the names to throw, but he knew little about the names.
“Want a gutkha Saab?” Haru wondered why Mr. Pillai had been standing in front of his shop, for what seemed like an eternity, and not buying anything. C.S. Pillai shook himself out of his reverie. The walk was over; he returned to his study and decided to go clinically about the whole thing.
Look up the scholastic writers hand guide, think of a plot, use some quotations… a clinical method. Clinical he was in all his ways. Always had been one for methods, a person who applied only a pea-sized amount of toothpaste to his brush, because the Colgate Company said so. Someone who folded up his trousers before sex, someone who always switched off the light during it.
Mr. Pillai felt a strange invisible hand choking him. He heard a voice calling out to him-‘Pillai, you are a phony, you are a fake.’ And he was transported back to his college days in Chennai, when he was one of the village idiots, who did not know the right pronunciation, the right bands, and the right books.
He felt like a phony too, a phony who had all the LP’s of bands he never listened to, who used toilet paper because he proclaimed he could not stand the Indian latrines; a phony who did not know what communism and Marxism actually was, but he used the words in his daily conversation, a phony who had no story to tell…
Mrs. Pillai was bringing her husband another bowl of rasam when she found him slumped over the desk. The doctor told her it was high fever combined with neuromuscular trouble and that Mr. Pillai just needed rest. A day later, when Mr. Pillai woke up, he felt like Kafka himself.
It felt as if he had taken some mescaline. Everything was so clear. He had a story in mind, a love story, which was so beautiful that it could transport you to the heavens. He felt as light-headed as he had done the day when in standard 3, he had composed that poem on the beetle Henry. It was his moment of salvation. He was a man who had a story to tell.
While looking around for his spectacles, he found a letter on the bedside table. It was another letter from Mr. Kapur, wishing him good health and advising him to take proper rest, and to not to worry about the story. The mystery was explained when the missus, who was bringing him another bowl of rasam, told him how she had asked the son, Sonu, to write to Mr. Kapur because they were concerned about his health.
They felt that the story business was taking a toll on his health and could Mr. Kapur forgive her husband for not sending in a story. Mr. Pillai felt the blood drain out-of-body. Muted words came out of his mouth-‘Chennai express, phony, story, Henry.’ Mrs. Pillai plonked down the bowl in front of him. When she later returned with his medicine, she found Mr. Pillai slumped on the floor this time, and her bowl of rasam upturned.
Always the missus to blame.