Friday, January 31, 2003

I cant get that image of 'Pawar Guest House' out of my mind. Must have been the atmosphere, maybe my receptive state of mind. Started a story which I could later make into a meta-story. In fact I could put in almost all my other stories into it....the spiders behind the bed, the foreigner (maybe even foreigner 2), secret diary, silver tongue (sad ending version, maybe), Smile...

As it is, here's the starting of the story, copying from the file i have, and adding as much as I can. This will get edited as i come back to it, so maybe it could be complete at some point.

When you walk along the pavement in the night, the road is illuminated only by the ghostly yellow light of sodium lamps and the frequently passing headlights. People take on a different shape then - somehow deeper and looking more like they all have strange stories in them. The slanting lights on their faces reveal creases never seen otherwise. Shadows in the little lanes going off the main road partly hide mysterious looking houses.

It's been a very long time since I went out walking late at night. Pretty much the first time I went out in this city. It feels different from my hometown. It's more developed, with sidewalks and neon signs flashing. But the road I'm walking down has been a colony for many decades; some of the houses are a hundred years old. Tile roofs and stone columns are evident everywhere in the sleeping, dark buildings. Mehndi and Duranta hedges form the second line of defence after corroded barb wire.

I start reading the names on the gateposts as I walk by. Some are overgrown with bougainvillea, streetlights around some others dont work. Most have just a surname and the house's name.

Suddenly I trip over a piece of broken paving. Reaching out blindly, my hands connect with a lamp post and I steady myself. It makes me aware of my surroundings and I become awared that someone is looking at me.

The building I'm standing in front of still has a few people in the yard. Its bigger than the others around it, so I look at the gatepost. PAWAR GUEST HOUSE, it reads. The place seems even older than the others around it, and in worse shape. The globular lamp on the left gatepost is smashed, the other gives off a weak, dusty light. To the left of the grounds, there are a few huts of old cardboard and plastic sheets: the kind that construction workers make when living on site. The people outside them are the only ones still awake, but they arent the ones watching me.

I look upward. The building is about 4 floors high...On the top floor, framed by the night sky beyond them, two figures sit on a balcony. One is an old woman, who is peering down at me. The other figure is indistinct; it seems to be wrapped up in a shawl or coat.

A moment passes. I cant think of anything to say or do; it seems bad manners to just walk away. Finally I call out," Are there any rooms for rent?"

The old woman seems taken aback. After a moment she calls down,"No...I mean, I can't...." She pauses a bit, and something changes in her expression. "You don't really want a room, do you?"

I think about what to say....the truth might be best. Or not. "This place looks interesting...It's really old, isnt it?"

"Oh, so you just want to hear stories," she says, something like a smile in her voice. "Wait there a minute." Her outline, and the one next to her, withdraw from the balcony.

I look around. No one else seems to have paid us any attention. After a couple of minutes, the creaky front door is pulled back partway, and her face appears in the shadow of the opening.
* * *

We go up dark flights of stairs, with old stains on the walls, splashes of yellow light from the windows on the wooden bannisters. I am just a few steps behind her, having silently agreed to her invitation to sit and talk. One or two of the doors have dim light seeping out from under them; for the most part, they are locked, silent. The radio plays fainlty in the background as we reach ( think) the fourth floor. The balcony is accessible directly from the stairs. I see two heavy chairs facing each other, a little table between them, a mudda to the side of one of the chairs with a radio perched on it. She sits down in this chair and turns off the radio. I take the other chair, somehow feeling comfortable here already.

"Sorry to interrupt your conversation," I say.

She gives me a strange look. "What conversation?"

"Werent you talking to someone just now?"

"No, I was sitting here alone, listening to Hawa Mahal. What made you think there was someone else?"

I pause, feeling a bit uneasy. "But I..."

"Oh, the extra chair...These are here all the time...other guests used to come here to watch the passersby, a long time back. Me, I just come now for the breeze."

"So you're not a guest here?"

"No, I'm just the caretaker. Pawar Saheb lives in Mumbai, I'm just here to make the place look occupied." A passing truck makes curved beams of light march across her face. She is looking at me curiously. "Do you live nearby?"

I was expecting this." No, I...had some time in this area, and decided to walk for a while. This is a nice street to walk in."

"True," she says, nodding. " just wanted to know about this place, eh?"

"Yes.It looks like a place with a history...It would be nice to hear...if you dont mind spending some time with an absolute stranger."

"At some point, everyone in the world feels like a stranger. No, it's good to talk. Havent sat down and talked in a long time."

" old is this place?"

But she seems to be lost in thought....she says, almost to herself, "So long it's been...I cant remember the last time I really talked." She seems to focus on me again.

"But somehow, I cant think of a single thing to say...nothing worth talking about. All these numbers and details...when this place was made, how many people, who made it....they mean nothing. What is really worth talking about is the stories...the thousands of stories that passed through this house." She glanced at me. "Have you ever thought about it? How you're a part of so many stories, how you intrude, change, touch pass through so many tales, how you're probably a minor character in the tales so many people hold in their hearts? Just as I've become a character in one, maybe several stories that you'll think about, tell your wife, describe to your friends?"

I nod. She continues, "But so few of those stories ever get changed into words, ever venture out of the heart they were formed in. So many would fade and wither if we tried to mould them into a narrative."

"But in a quiet place, with a good listener, they could bloom perhaps."

Her eyes, which were looking at some far-off memory, snap into the present. She smiles a little. "But I'm not the only one with the stories..."

"Who, me? I dont have any..."

"So, young man, you just want to be entertained? You just want me to talk, talk, talk, while you sit there looking at me, perhaps not even listening? I dont think so." Now her face is hard, she reminds me of a sharp customer at a vegetable stall.

"But what do you want me to tell you? I dont really have much to say-"

"So tell me what you have. If you can't appreciate the little stories in your own life, how could I expect you to understand mine?"

She softens a bit."Look, I know you have them in you...they dont have to be long or grand. But I really want to hear you tell me something close to you. Come on, now..."

"Give me a minute." I lean back in the chair. The silence is broken only by the noise of the people in the yard, who are still up, and by a bird calling out from the mango tree in the yard. I let my mind wander free, trying to pick up something compact enough, simple enough, understandable enough from the maze of my life...

"I think I have one. It is not long, but its something my grandfather told me a long time back and I hold it close."

She is just listening, now. Her eyes have that vacant look again.

* * *

"There's a temple, somewhere in the jungle some distance from here. Villagers know of it, they visit the temple when they are in trouble. This ancient temple has no idol of the Devi. Rather, it is said that the Devi resides in the large bronze bell hanging at the entrance. People pray to the bell, before ringing it and going in. Inside is just the pundit.

"They say about the Devi that she has great powers. They say that if you are ever in any trouble, and you ring the bell, she will appear before you and help you out of your trouble.

"She only appears on one condition, though. She will appear to you *only if* you are in some trouble which you cannot solve yourself, which is too big for you to handle.

"No one, ever, has seen her to appear yet."

* * *

She has been listening to me carefully. After I am done with it, I lean back again and say, "This was my grandfather's favourite story. I've always thought of it as the biggest thing he ever gave me."

She seems satisfied; she's nodding gently, going over it in her mind. "That is good. I see you *do* know how to recognise a story."

"So now...tell me about this place?"

"There are so many stories..." She broods,"...and many of them actually happened.

"I'll tell you one thing that happened here a long time ago."

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