A Writer’s World
By Zia Marshall
Varsha was struggling with a poignant mother-daughter scene when Varun told her he was leaving. She rose to give him a hug. Then she returned to her work, while Varun left their tiny Mumbai flat. He would be gone for two months this time. It was a short rotation compared to the six-month stints he usually did aboard the ship.
In the initial days after their marriage, he had suggested that she join him when he went sailing. After all, she could write anywhere, he had reasoned. They had an awful row that day – the worst since they had been married.
"How can you assume that I can write from anywhere?" Varsha had cried indignantly. "Clearly, you don't understand the first thing about my writing. Writing is an art, Varun, and I need my own space while writing. My ideas would never flow if I were cooped up on a ship for months together. I wouldn't be able to write a thing."
Varun had never again asked her to join him aboard the ship. Just as Varsha could never ask him to leave the Merchant Navy and take a regular job. She knew that the sea was in his blood just as writing was in hers.
So for many months in the year, Varun and Varsha inhabited two different worlds. He lived in his world of the vast, undulating sea and she occupied her world of beautiful, eloquent words. But they missed each other terribly in the months that they were apart. "I suppose you'll eventually get used to my absence," Varun had said, to which Varsha had replied, "No, I'll never get used to it. But I'll learn to accept it and live with it."
Even now, three years into their marriage, Varsha could not bear to go to the dockyard to see Varun off. She had done it the first time he had gone away. She had stood with all the other shippie wives waving as the large ship pulled out of the harbour in a mass of frothy white waves that cut a wide swathe across the brilliant blue sea. The sight of the ship sailing away had brought home to her the finality of his departure for the next few months. His absence echoed through the empty walls of their flat and settled over her like a living thing. She had had spent the next three days in a haze of grief and self-indulgent tears. Finally her mother, worried by the fact that Varsha wasn't returning any of her phone calls, had arrived. She had doled out strong black coffee and practical advice in equal measure.
"You have chosen to marry a shippie. Now you must learn to deal with his habitual absence from your life," Varsha's mother had said in a matter-of-fact tone.
It was sound advice and Varsha had taken it to heart. She had pulled herself together and got on with it. Her writing occupied a large part of her day, the months flew by, and before she knew it Varun had returned.
But Varsha had never again made the mistake of going to the dockyard to see Varun off. Instead she preferred it this way, as it had been this morning. A brief hug and he was gone, while she remained immersed in her work.
When Varsha eventually rose from her desk and made her way to the kitchen to fix herself a cup of coffee, she hardly noticed Varun's absence, so absorbed was she in her novel. The words with their tiny black letters danced around in her mind and tumbled out filling the blank pages of the Word document, as she tapped away at the keyboard in a writer's mesmerised trance.
The hours flew by. When Varsha glanced out of the window facing her desk, the sky was enveloped in the purple shades of twilight. Where had the time gone, she wondered, as she rose and stretched. Her stomach rumbled in protest. She realised she hadn't eaten all day. She went to the kitchen and looked at the dishes on the counter. The cook had come in at some point, cooked a meal, and left. Varsha dimly recalled seeing her during the course of the day. She must have come into her study to ask for instructions. Wondering what she had asked the cook to prepare, Varsha lifted the lids of the dishes and saw a brinjal curry and some fried prawns. Grabbing a plate, she heaped food onto it and made her way to the tiny dining alcove to eat her meal. She switched on the television and half listened to Modi's speech at the Krishi Unnati Mela. But Modi failed to hold her attention. Yawning, she switched off the television.
Varsha decided to tidy up the flat. She liked performing household chores. They gave her the satisfaction of a job perfectly done, unlike her writing, which seemed to have a mind of its own. On good days, the words flowed and a warm glow of pleasure filled her being. On bad days, she spent hours trying to take a character from Point A to Point B in the plot, but the words never came out right, and she wondered if she was cut out to be a writer at all. The fact that she had written two novels that had sold very well didn't matter. With each new novel, she felt she had to prove herself all over again.
Picking up a cleaning cloth, Varsha polished the surfaces of the furniture in the living room. It was a tiny room but Varsha had made it cosy and inviting. A beige couch with plump, brightly coloured brocade cushions stood against a wall painted a burnt orange. Table lamps, placed on small tables on either side of the couch, cast a mellow glow in the room. A collection of books was piled on a square coffee table. A turquoise wingback chair stood opposite the couch and a magenta ottoman with another pile of books was placed before it.
Varsha loved books. And when she wasn't writing them, she spent her time reading books. Her reading taste was eclectic. She could effortlessly navigate her way through the pages of Leo Tolstoy, Deepak Chopra, Ruth Rendell, and Rebecca Shaw all at the same time.
Varsha picked up the pile of books on the coffee table. She sorted out the ones she had finished. She would put them away. Next she decided to tackle the books on the ottoman. As she picked up the books, her gaze fell on a stranger seated on the wingback chair. Startled, Varsha dropped the books. They fell to the floor with a resounding crash. She gave a short scream and stared hard at the lady occupying the wingback chair. She looked strangely familiar. It was Rita! She would recognise that sleek black hair, the arch of her widow's peak and those luminous grey eyes anywhere. After all, wasn't Rita a creature of her own creation? Hadn't she seen her often enough in her mind's eye? Varsha was used to having the characters from her story inhabit the shadowy recesses of her mind. Now, one of them had stepped out of the pages of her novel into real life. How was that possible? Trembling, Varsha walked towards Rita.
"It's you, isn't it, Rita?" she whispered.
Varsha stared in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
Rita arched her eyebrows. "That's a strange question. I live here. And I have to stay here till you finish your novel."
"But …I don't understand. You aren't real!"
"Of course I'm real!" Rita cried indignantly. "You created and moulded me into the person I am. How can you deny my existence?"
Varsha hastily backed away from Rita and sat down on the couch.
"How did you get out of my mind and onto that chair? Why are you here," she asked weakly. She pinched herself wondering if she was dreaming. And winced in pain. This was real. Somehow Rita, a character from her novel, had appeared in her life.
"I'm here to tell you that you are making a mess of the novel, Varsha," Rita explained patiently. Varsha nodded helplessly. "I know but I can't fix it."
"I'll help you."
For the next hour, Rita spoke and Varsha listened as she told her how to straighten out the rough edges in the plot and add more depth to the characters. At some point, Varsha pulled out a writing pad and jotted down notes. Finally, when Rita had finished, she vanished. Varsha rose from the couch, stumbled into bed, and fell asleep.
The next morning, Varsha was convinced she must have dreamt the whole episode. Then her gaze fell on the writing pad. She shivered as she glanced through the notes. The episode had been bizarre. But the notes hit the nail on the head. They pointed out exactly what was wrong with her novel and how she could fix it. Excited, she picked up the notes and went to the laptop. She didn't care if Rita had actually given her those tips or if she had woken up from her sleep and written those notes. What mattered was that she had found a way to fix her novel.
Varsha worked on her novel all through the days that followed and late into the nights as well. When her mother called, she explained that she didn't want to disturb the flow of writing and would meet her some other time. She dimly recalled Varun saying that there would be spotty network in the area where he was sailing and he would call when he could. But the real world had receded from Varsha's existence and she was living within the pages of her novel. In her mind, she was in Goa where her novel was based. She explored the beaches and felt the salt spray against her face as she worked out the tangled web of Bhavesh's mysterious disappearance and Naveen's torrid affair with Rita.
Varsha was trying to figure out how she could make Naveen's wife, Payal, aware of her husband's affair when she saw Bhavesh seated on the beige couch flipping through the pages of a Nicci French mystery. This time she wasn't surprised. Instead she sat on the wingback chair and listened while Bhavesh told her how to tie in his disappearance with Payal's discovery of Naveen's affair. Payal's daughter, Gauri would play a key role in the sequence of events. Varsha took down notes and went to work.
They visited her often after that, Naveen, Payal, Rita, Bhavesh, and Gauri. She accepted their comings and goings as insouciantly as she accepted the milkman's visit every morning. "You should invite your mother home, Varsha," Bhavesh said one day. "We'll make ourselves scarce, don't worry."
Varsha shook her head. "Ma isn't keeping well, Bhavesh. That's why she hasn't been to see me in so long."
"Then you should go visit her some time," he advised.
"There are six missed calls from Varun. Why aren't you taking his calls," Payal asked, standing behind Varsha, while she was hard at work on her novel.
Startled, Varsha looked up and nodded. "Yes, I know. I'll call him back as soon as I finish this scene. I don't want to break the flow."
"Don't neglect your husband, Varsha. I neglected mine and now he's having an affair," Payal said dolefully before vanishing.
"I hate the classics, Varsha, but Tennessee Williams is pretty good," Gauri said as she flipped through A Streetcar Named Desire. "Listen to what Blanche DuBois has to say. 'We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.' Now aren't you lucky you have all of us living with you? You're never lonely, are you, Varsha?"
Varsha shook her head. She didn't bother replying. Lately, she felt she could do with a little bit of solitude. The characters from her novel seemed to have overtaken her life and she didn't know how to get rid of them.
One morning, when Varsha emerged from her bedroom, she stopped short. A man was standing against the light spilling in from the window. She didn't recognise him. He wasn't from the pages of her novel.
"Who are you?" Varsha whispered fearfully.
"Don't you recognise me?" the man asked. He was short with dark skin and the most piercing pair of eyes she had ever seen. They seemed to bore into her soul when he looked at her. Diminutive in stature, he still managed to fill the room with his presence. There was such an air of dynamic vitality about him.
Varsha shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I don't know you."
"Of course you do. I am the silent echo of your soul. I am love, eternal, timeless and immortal." Varsha's fear melted away. She stepped forward and lightly ran her fingers over the stranger's brow. It was smooth and soft. She caressed his cheek and folded her arms around the nape of his neck. For a fleeting moment, she thought of Varun.
"Don't think of him," the stranger whispered, as he drew her close to him. "He doesn't belong to your world, does he? Is Varun part of your world of books and writing?"
She shook her head. "Varun doesn't like reading and I can't discuss my writing with him. He is too practical to understand creativity and imagination. But I love him."
"There are different kinds of love," the stranger replied. "The love you share with Varun is a union of flesh. It is physical, transient, ephemeral. Let me show you love that is a union of souls and minds."
She nodded. How could she refuse? He unbuttoned her clothes, which fell in a pool at her feet. He tugged at the elastic band in her hair setting it free. It fell in a flowing ripple around her naked bosom. When he enveloped her in his arms, she found that they fit together perfectly. And when he took her, she knew she had finally found a missing piece of her being, which had long eluded her. The hours melted away as they discussed books and her writing. She told him about her aspirations as a writer. She hoped, one day, to move away from the potboilers she currently wrote.
"What I want, more than anything in the world, is to write a self-help book. But I don't know if I have it in me. I'm afraid to leave my comfort zone and try. What if I fail," she said.
"If you don't try, you'll never know, will you?" he said. "Here I want you to read this." He handed her a copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. "Open it," he instructed.
"Any particular page?" she asked.
"Open the book to any page. It will always give you the answers you need."
She opened the book and read aloud, "People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of."
She shut the book with a snap. "Thank you," she whispered. "You've given me the courage to try."
"No, all I have done is show you what is hidden within the depths of your soul," the stranger said, gently caressing her brow as she lay with her head in his lap. "Now sleep," he whispered, continuing to caress her brow. Varsha fell asleep, a smile tugging at her lips, while Coelho's The Alchemist slipped out of her hands and fell to the floor.
"Varsha, wake up," Varun was gently shaking her awake. Varsha opened her eyes and saw the familiar figure of her husband. She rose hastily from the bed. "When did you return," she asked. "I just got back. Varsha, why haven't you been returning my calls? I have been worried sick about you. You haven't even been to see your mother. What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Varun. Payal told me about your missed calls and I promised Bhavesh that I would visit Ma, but things have been a bit hectic with my writing…" Varsha's voice trailed off when she saw the puzzled expression on Varun's face.
"Who on earth is Payal? And Bhavesh?"
"They are characters from my novel," Varsha whispered. "I know it sounds unbelievable, but it's true, Varun. They've been here the whole time you've been away."
"Varsha," Varun stepped forward and took her hand gently in his. "You haven't been taking your medication, have you?"
Varsha stared at Varun uncomprehendingly.
"It's my fault. I should have insisted you stay with your mother. But you have always been so stubborn about your writing. You said you couldn't write at your mother's place. Even so, I shouldn't have given in to your whims and left you alone here."
Varun pulled open the drawer where Varsha's medication was stored. He rifled through the box of medication and groaned in despair. Then he quickly left the room.
Varsha could hear him speaking on the phone in a low voice. "Looks like the onset of a schizophrenic episode but I am not sure….skipped most of her medication…"
Rising from the bed, she stumbled over Coelho's The Alchemist that lay on the floor. The memories of the previous night flooded her consciousness. She felt a strange tingling in her fingers. She needed to feel the keyboard under her fingers; she needed to write. She had it in her to be a fine writer. She hurriedly went to her study and switched on the laptop. The pages of her novel appeared on the screen. She had to write a couple of scenes and then she could wrap this up and move on to write more serious stuff.
But her fingers were frozen over the keyboard. Rita, Bhavesh, Payal, Gauri and Naveen crowded around her giving her instructions on how to complete the novel. Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? The words fluttered and flew in the wind.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018