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Two months, and hardly anything to show for it. This was not how he’d envisioned things to be. He’d even tried travelling, holing up at the attic in his ancestral home for a bit, thinking that the isolation would compel him to write. No distractions should result in improved productivity, was what he told himself. But the hydra that is the Internet had found its way in, head after head spewing fire, leaving him in swirls of smoke and smoldering embers of his ideas. He knew that he could get it done when he wanted to – it was only a question of finding the right stimulus. So far, he’d always worked best under pressure. Maybe it was time to up the threat levels a bit. A sword over his head seemed to be the best way to get him going.
He’d been struggling with the plot for a while now. He had a rough idea, but wasn’t sure how to take it forward. After all, what good is a story if it fails to captivate? And unless he could write something that convinced him first, why would he even think of putting it out there for the world to criticize? Several ideas had been contemplated, but he knew he hadn’t arrived at what he wanted. The thoughts in his head kept swirling around boisterously, refusing to settle down.
Which was probably why he didn’t hear the stealthy step by the door. A soft tread, but one he should have heard nevertheless. After all, he was alone at home. They had picked the lock on the door to get in. He could not have heard that, being in the balcony. The small block of flats hardly saw any visitors at this time of the day, and they had no trouble getting past a snoring security guard. Not being the first time they were doing this sort of thing, they knew exactly what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. He wasn’t supposed to be home though. This, they didn’t expect. They would need some quick thinking, and fast.
The cursor on the screen blinked at him unflinchingly, offering no help. He wondered at its ability to stay so focused at its job, irrespective of the sort of writing that he was putting down. That was something he admired. The inability to produce quality writing invariably ticked him off. It wouldn’t take long before he’d abandon the keyboard cursing, if he went down that road. As he stared at the screen the words seemed to blur into a shapeless mass, coming together to mock him.
He sometimes thought he lacked material, but that was not it.
There were stories all around. Take the couple across the street for instance. A story a second, is what he thought of them. From the quick snatches of affection in the morning to the lengthy bickering in the evening – his window offered an uninterrupted view into their colorful life. It was like watching a movie – many genres bundled into one. Although he’d hope every day that there wouldn’t be a tragic climax. A relationship was something to be cherished. He’d know that better than anyone else. There were things that he would have done a little different, had he been given another chance. That was a phase of his life that had sped by fast. Way too fast. He’d not been given enough to resolve or reflect, and now, remember. Everything from those days was a blur of tears now. Tears of dejection, anger, and lost hope. An episode of his life he could not go back to, despite wanting to.
Then there was the little kid on the ground floor. A blessing of new life, an expression of joy and surprise every waking minute. The exhilaration of discovery – day after day. He had unsuccessfully tried, several times, to describe the glint in the boy’s eye when he saw something new. From a truck that rolled by in a cloud of dust to the little beetle that scuttled down a blade of grass – everything was viewed with eyes shining with excitement. The yells of excitement at the smallest of things reminded him of his days with his mother as a little kid. Those were the only memories he could still go back to now. It was almost as though he had filled up his internal storage with so much from his childhood, that there was no more space to for anything else from the rest of his life. Maybe he just didn’t want to let go. Maybe it was the only happiness that he had, to hold on to. Those were days of sunshine, laughter, pranks and punishments. He been a butterfly in a garden, constantly hopping from one discovery to another. It didn’t take long for that garden to be washed away in the flood of adolescence though.
There was also the mysterious little pick-up van that was perennially parked in the little lane outside. It had been there so long now, that it had become a part of the landscape. People no longer ‘saw’ the van. It was so evident, that it had disappeared. It seemed to stay there devoid of claimants, despite probably still being in driving condition. Unvisited, unwanted, like a little memory locked up inside, not willing to be revisited. On some nights though, he’d seen some activity around the van. He had never been able to make out faces. They were always shadows, moving about. He was sure the van was part of some clandestine racket that was underway, but wasn’t brave enough to find out more. After all, trouble usually had a way of finding him before he went looking for it. While the storyteller in him was curious to know more, the third world citizen in him knew better. What somebody meant to keep hidden was probably better off staying hidden. He had a similar pick-up parked in the deepest corners of his mind. It had been stationed there post a phase of his life that he knew better than to revisit. His thoughts sometimes flitted nearby, much like the shadows on many a dark night. He didn’t know what they’d find there anymore, now that he’d kept away from it for so long. He’d trained himself to look through this parked cargo of regret, unable to move it out of the way.
He was troubled by writing as much as he loved it. It was difficult for him to make it happen on-demand. Yes, there were occasions when the words would gush out, much like a gentle waterfall being overwhelmed by a flash flood. But those days were few and far in-between. On days when he was able to write effortlessly, he’d feel like a Spartan hero who’d just won the war for his kingdom. And much like the warrior, not every day was his. Making victory a habit would require going to war every day, ceaselessly, and that was too big ask right now. Maybe the desire to shy away came from not being born a warrior, but just wanting to be one. Maybe it was not natural inclination – or as they put it, it wasn’t ‘in his blood’. How was he to find out for sure? There was a certain place he went to when he wrote. A place deep inside. A place where most things ceased to matter. A place where a symphony of serenity laid everything else to rest. It was the need to find this place, again and again, that made him go back to his quest for words. As magical as the place was, it was near impossible to get to, on most days. It seemed to be hidden in a forest of words, accessible only to those who knew the right combination of words to unlock the path. A path that seemed to change every day. Being able to stitch the right words together was a blessing that he was bestowed with, very rarely.
He put fingers to keyboard yet again. If brute force was what was called for, then that is what he would have to get down to. He had to make this happen. After all, they’d agreed to publish it if they liked it. This was going to be his big break. He laughed out unexpectedly at that turn of phrase. Will the ‘big break’ break me, he wondered? The self-doubts had always been there, but now they resurfaced with renewed vigor and vengeance. There was a monster deep within, stalking every stroke of his pen. It kept trying to beat him down. ‘This is too much effort, you’re not going to make it’ – day in, and day out. A voice that he kept trying to silence, but was getting increasingly louder of late. His writer’s cocoon of silence had been defiled, and the need to banish the voices had become more urgent than ever before.
Was that a noise by the window? He wasn’t really sure.
He forced himself to come back to his desk, fishing his mind out of the abyss of thoughts it was floundering in. It’s probably somebody at the tea shop below, he figured. There was always something going on there. He’d once written a short story loosely based on the vendor at the shack, and his urge to fleece customers at every single opportunity. He’d been a mute witness on many an occasion, and couldn’t wait for the day when someone would expose the shopkeeper. In fact, he’d gotten so tired of waiting, that he went ahead, imagined it all in his mind, and tried writing a story. It gave him a strange sense of satisfaction, seeing the story out there. The truth, laid bare for everyone to see, yet no one to see it. That is exactly how life was turning out to be, he thought. The truth was right there, in front of everybody – but nobody wanted to see it. The fact that people were ruining their lives, the planet, and their kids – this new world order seemed to have uprooted logic by its very foundation. It didn’t take too much thinking to see all that, but most people were too caught up in the vice like grip of routine to be able to do anything about it. Well, all that was a topic for another day, he thought to himself wearily. Right now, he had a story to finish, and a plot to piece together.
They saw that he was engrossed in his work. The fates seemed to be on their side, with him failing to notice them even after they made slight noises. Twice. They were desperate – both of them. The idea to break-in and loot had not been their first choice at making a quick buck, but there weren’t any others that seemed to be as quick. And they needed the money, of course. They had zeroed in on a small apartment complex, one that would not have too much security, or CCTV installations. One or two such flats would see them through the month, they’d figured. They’d finally picked an apartment that seemed to be empty – after all, only one room had a light switched on, and that too hadn’t been turned off in two days. A common ploy employed by residents who were not at home. The door to the flat was the least of their worries. A little screwdriver and a small piece of cable had done the job of a key. He must have moved to the balcony as they were breaking in, they would have noticed him otherwise. He must have suddenly felt the need to breathe, they thought – sniggering to themselves. That apart, this did present a problem though. They had already broken in, and there was no way to see this through without getting caught, unless they left quietly, quickly and emptyhanded. The theft now boiled down to their sense of desperation pitched against the urgency of their need, and not greed, as was wont in many such instances. Having embarked on a crime, they quickly decided that it didn’t make sense for them to return empty handed. They were bound to be discovered – but with a little luck, they’d overpower him between the two of them. They waited near the balcony where he sat, unsure of what to do next. A heavy vase sitting on the dining table was silently palmed.
He seemed to be making some progress. Maybe the tide was turning. That is how it always was. Weeks of misery and agony followed by a day or two of brilliance. The ratio was far too skewed, he always thought. But there was no work-around that he’d discovered yet, than get through the rough days in the hope that their streak would end soon. He was quite happy with the sentence he’d just written. He had his hero on the brink of an epiphany – a realization that would change everything. But he wasn’t quite sure what. His hero was no Buddha, to come up with universal truths in the blink of an eye. It had to be something common, yet uncommon. Something that was in his sights all along, but was seen only now. But what was it that could happen to him to make him see light all of a sudden? Here was a commonplace citizen, burdened by all that life could throw at him, trying to juggle tens of priorities all at the same time, not sure what mattered, and what did not. A hero not very unlike himself, he thought. This was the man he wanted to bring the truth to. This was the man he wanted to enlighten. But what, and how?
If things were beginning to look up, he’d arrive at the answer fairly soon. It would just come – he knew. When time and tide came together, things just happened. There were occasions when he’d just let his fingers do the typing, not knowing where the words were coming from. One such wave, and he’d be done with the manuscript today. That would be beyond good fortune, he knew. Had he put in enough effort to justify a stroke of good luck now? He wasn’t sure, though he wished for it. His hero probably needed a life altering moment. An instance that put everything into perspective, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle suddenly falling into place. He tried to reflect back on his life. He’d observed a lot of things around himself – seen, learnt and pondered over them. However, the only time when he’d been caught unawares was when he had been hospitalized with a rare strain of fever. He’d gone in for a check-up when the fever had persisted for a week. The usual dose of paracetamol didn’t seem to help. The idea was to get a prescription, buy some antibiotics, and get back to his desk. The blood tests had a different story to tell though. The doctors figured it could be a strain of H1N1, but weren’t too sure. They tried different drugs, and to this day, he wasn’t sure which one of them had worked. Truth be told, neither are they. All he still remembered is how he found himself in a hospital bed at such short notice. There was no time to do anything. Even the pizza that he’d wanted to pop into the fridge, but postponed until after he was back from the hospital. That was an incident that had forced him to reorganize priorities. It was strange how what seemed important until then suddenly became irrelevant. There are life-truths that can bring about such transformations, he thought. There certainly are.
They decided that it would probably be best to knock him out. This was the first time they had run into a resident while breaking in. Although unsure initially, the unconscious act of picking up a heavy vase had set in motion a chain of thoughts. Had the situation been a little different, had their need not been so pressing, they would probably have tried to get away without being noticed. That was not an option now though. This solution that had presented itself in their actions seemed to be a good bet. They would be long gone by the time he’d come to his senses. The local cops, as they knew, were far too burdened to bother about something as commonplace as a burglary. They just had to make sure they got it right the first time, so they wouldn’t have to deal with a howling victim trying to raise alarm. One of them had had to fend away a dog once before – that had taken considerable effort. A human, after all, was much bigger. The blow would have to be sure, and considerably heavier. The vase was handed across to the bigger among them, and they exchanged a confirmatory glance before moving cautiously in the direction of the balcony.
He looked up from his screen as he paused between sentences. He was getting into the groove, he could feel it. He could sense that his solution was close. The words were starting to fall in line, almost reverentially. It was as though they’d discovered a new found sense of respect for him. As he smiled triumphantly to himself, he thought he saw a movement in his peripheral vision. The shadows were not going to bother him, not today – he thought to himself dismissively. Today would be his day. He did look up to capture a stray thought though, and that is when he saw what was happening.
He wasn’t sure how hard he got hit. He could feel a dampness start to envelope the sides of his head, his vision clouding. As he slid to the floor in a crumpled heap, his mind went back to the few moments when he’d realized that he was being attacked. There must have been hardly a second or two between when he saw what was happening, and the vase made contact with his head.
The lucidity of the moment caught him by surprise. Even as he watched the vase descend on him, his mind detached itself from the horrific possibilities, or the outcome. The ordinary ceased to exist. The writer in him saw it purely for what it was – the moment of reckoning.
There could be nothing more defining than the prospect of having reached the end of one’s road. The simple clarity the moment accorded was more powerful than anything he had felt. Could death be the answer? The climax to the perfect plot he was looking for? He smiled to himself as the blackness started to descend – he had his answer.
Now, if only he could write.