Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Ageing Lion (Short story)


By Shevlin Sebastian

Indranil Dhar stared at the white sheet of paper rolled up in his typewriter. The words, ‘Holders Mohun Bagan’, were typed out. He drummed his fingers on the small glass-topped table.
It was quiet in the reporter’s section of The Daily newspaper in Kolkata. Most of his colleagues had gone for dinner in the canteen. He had not felt hungry and had remained behind, at the second table, which was part of a row of tables, placed one behind another, beside a wall. Each table had a Remington typewriter, a one-foot high monstrosity, on it. There was another row of tables placed against the opposite wall of the narrow room. On green felt boards running along the two walls were pieces of paper, placed haphazardly, with red pins on it, announcing some press conference or the other. Just above it were lockers painted a muted orange.
It was 9.30 p.m. and Indranil was trying to write a match report of the football league in Kolkata between champions Mohun Bagan and Aryans. He got up and began to walk up and down between the tables, his head tilted forward and his hands clasped behind his back. The parallel rows of bright fluorescent lights embedded in the false ceiling behind rectangular glass frames, the cool air-conditioning and the silence gave the room a feel of an operation theatre in a hospital.
He walked for ten minutes but his mind remained blank. ‘This must be the 600th match report I am writing,’ he thought. And now, he discovered that he could not write.
As usual, he turned for help. He stopped at his desk, opened his locker and took out a bottle of ‘Old Monk’ rum and a plastic glass. He poured one and a half pegs into the glass, carefully screwed the cap back on and put the bottle back in the locker, covering it with a newspaper. He filled the glass with water from a cooler placed near the entrance and drank it in two big gulps.
He made a smacking sound with his lips and felt better. He washed the glass in the cooler tap, even though he was not supposed to, shook it so that there were no drops of water, and placed it in his locker. He then sat down at his desk, rubbed his palms together, and stared at the paper, with narrowed eyes, for a few moments. Then he hit the keys with the third finger of both his hands. The action resembled a woodpecker pecking at a tree trunk. He looked up to see that he had typed, "Holders Mohun Bagan", once again. His eyes widened a little in shock. He fell back, rested his head on the back of the chair, stretched his legs, and closed his eyes.
He couldn't understand what was happening. He had done this for years together. It was something he could have done blindly earlier. And now, he could not even write a sentence.
Time passed; one by one his younger colleagues returned and soon, the room vibrated with the rat-a-tat sound of typewriter keys being hit at high speed and the tinkle of a bell when the noisy carriage reached one end. He opened his eyes and his vision was blurred for a few moments. Then he realised that he had been crying. He hurriedly pulled out a handkerchief, shook it open and wiped his face.
“Anything wrong?” asked Sanjukta Datta, a female reporter in a low voice. She was sitting at the same desk on the opposite row, and wore a body hugging yellow t-shirt, tucked into tight Levis jeans, with the breasts jutting out like twin peaks. “No, no, I am fine,” Indranil said, smiling hastily. She caught his eyes for a moment, frowned, then nodded and turned towards her typewriter. Thankfully, no one else had observed what was going on. `They are young, and I am old,' he thought, as he watched a coil of cigarette smoke move towards the ceiling in slow motion.
It was 10.30 p.m. He took a couple of deep breaths, and gripped the end of the table with his fingers. He did not know what to do. A few moments passed. Then he picked up his reporter’s notebook from the table and got up. He could feel Sanjukta’s puzzled eyes on his back as he stepped out of the room.
In the newsroom, he was assailed by the shouts of sub-editors asking for a photograph or a copy, all sitting at similar glass topped tables, with typewriters on it. There was an occasional buzz from the square-shaped teleprinter, placed on a table, with four long legs, like a crane’s, at one corner, as it spitted out a roll of white sheets now and then.
He made his way to a series of glass cubicles placed side by side, at one side of the room. He knocked on one door. Sports Editor Sanjib Sen looked up and nodded. As soon as Indranil shut the door, it was suddenly silent. Sanjib, who had thin arms, a sunken chest and thick black spectacles, was editing a copy with a blue ballpoint pen, a lit cigarette wedged between the first two fingers of his left hand.
“So, what is the news?” Sanjib said, as he continued to make small changes in the copy.
"Sanjib, I have a problem," Indranil said, coming straight to the point.
"What is it?" the Sports Editor said, as he took a drag from his cigarette. The tip glowed brightly for a brief moment.
"I just can't write," Indranil whispered; his eyes contracted in pain. "It's becoming regular, isn't it?" Sanjib said, as he exhaled the smoke upwards in one steady breath. Indranil rubbed his forehead and said, "My mind is blank. I just can't write. I think I am having some sort of a block."
"Try a drink," Sanjib suggested.
"I tried," Indranil said, "but still nothing's happening."
They stared at each other in silence. Sanjib took another drag and carefully placed the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray, which was already filled with butts. Then he took off his spectacles and cleaned the lens slowly with a handkerchief. He felt tired. He knew he had to cover up for Indranil, because they had known each other for years and were both dependent on this job. In Kolkata jobs were scarce, because of a stagnant economy, and, in the absence of social security, if you were sacked, you headed straight for poverty.
After the cleaning operation was over, he held the spectacles, at arm’s length, to check whether the lenses were clean and then put them back on. Indranil was surprised to see that Sanjib had bushy black eyebrows, which had been hidden by the spectacles.
"Pass me the notes," Sanjib said.
Indranil exhaled through his mouth and pulled out the blue notepad from his back pocket. He flipped through the pages, before he found the notes on the match.
"I am sorry," he said, as Sanjib began reading.
"Don’t worry," Sanjib said, as he looked up, his eyes suddenly pulsing with warmth, "I'll write it."

Indranil stood at the bus stop, near Great Eastern Hotel, on Government Place East, leaning against a lamppost. He was the lone traveller at this time of the night. The street was bathed in the orange light from the sodium lamps. An occasional Santro or Maruti sped past, headlights blazing. He gazed at the trees, all bunched together and shrouded in darkness in the gardens of Raj Bhawan on the opposite side. Beside it, there was a tall building, all the windows in darkness, except for the lighted lobby. He closed his eyes and rubbed the sides of his forehead in a circular motion with his fingertips. He could sense the beginnings of a headache as he thought of his life.
He remembered the great love for journalism that he had in the past. The stories that he had written; especially the scandals on the Maidan: the nexus between the hoodlums, the politicians and the football officials; the fixing of matches; the intimidation of referees; the illegal betting that took place during important matches.
He had been a respected, professional investigative sports reporter and would frequently receive tips and snippets from people who wanted to bring down those who were in power.
He recalled how effortlessly he would churn out his articles. He thought of the hard life that he led, the excessive drinking every night and the facile way that he carried on working the next day. It seemed as if he was indestructible.
He remembered his youthful romps. Of how he had picked up rich, bored society ladies, in their expensive chiffon sarees and clunky gold jewellery, while covering golf tournaments at the elite Tollygunge Club and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. Of the slim Mizo girl he seduced—doe-eyed, black shoulder length hair and wearing a short red skirt—a nice interlude while covering the Gold Cup in Darjeeling; of the widow in her forties in the Accounts Section, ebony-skinned, with bulging breasts, who was so sexually hungry. Somehow, even after his marriage, he would go for a discreet session with her on a Saturday evening at her home in Bhowanipore.
He thought of his wife Aparna, whom he had met at a friend's place. It was love at first sight for both. He was of medium-height, but with muscular shoulders, a broad face with a long nose and neatly trimmed sideburns and brown eyes, that focused on people with the intensity of a laser beam.
He was famous then: Calcutta's premier sports journalist. She was awed! Journalism, like films, had always been regarded as such a glamourous profession.
Aparna had hair that ran down like a sheet to her waist, firm breasts, a narrow waist and strong legs with broad calves. They had married after a six-month courtship. Years later, he still loved her. They had a son Sandip, eight years old, thin and frail but bright-eyed and possessing an electric energy.
How time had passed! How quickly his youth had gone past! He had experienced too much, too soon. But now he felt stale. He had an intuitive sense that he was heading towards a burnout. Indranil Dhar, star reporter, forty-five years old, could not write anymore. He suddenly realised he was leaning against the lamppost when the mini bus arrived with a squeal of brakes.
It was empty save for a few men who sat singly at the window seats and looked out pensively. Indranil got in and sat on the back seat. The bus was noisy, with the windowpanes rattling and the wooden slats on the seats knocking against each other. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the noise.
He was still travelling in mini buses, he thought. He earned poorly every month. He remembered once telling his wife, as they walked by the riverside, on a Sunday evening, "Journalism looks a great profession from outside, but my salary is poor." She just held his hand, squeezed it hard and said, looking deep into his eyes, “It doesn’t matter Indro, I love you.”
And now, they were living in a three-room flat.
The bus came to his stop on Diamond Harbour Road, near the Birla hospital and Indranil got out. He crossed the road and entered Ekbalpore Road, which had patches of darkness because of non-functioning lights. He saw a dhoti-clad beggar, with a straggly grey beard and a hunched back, spread a few empty sacks on the sidewalk, near a wall, preparing to go to sleep.
He reached a four-storeyed building and paused at the bottom of the stairs. Then taking deep breaths, his chest jutting out with the effort, he went up the stairs, with slow, ponderous movements, to the second floor. He rang the bell, ‘ting-tong’ went the sound, and Aparna opened it immediately. She smiled as he leaned down to kiss her forehead. The skin was cool and smooth, and there was a sweet fragrance about her. She no longer had her long hair. She had cut it because “it is so difficult to look after,” she had told him a couple of years ago. She stepped back, put her hands in the pockets of the blue cotton housecoat and said, in mock anger, "You are drinking again?"
"Just a little bit," he admitted and added, "I am hungry."
She nodded and hurried to the kitchen on bare feet and lit the gas stove with a lighter. Indranil took off his shirt and observed a line of dirt around the inside of the collar. He grimaced as he hung it across the chair in the dining room. His hairy chest could not hide his small potbelly, which hung over the band of his trousers.
His wife shouted from the kitchen, "Why don't you have a bath?"
"No, no, I will eat first," he replied, as he washed his hands at the washbasin and splashed water on his face.
Placing soft, hot chappatis and a steaming mutton stew in front of him, his wife sat down at another chair, and looked at him as he began to eat.
"Indro," she said, "why do you look so unhappy?"
He stared at her as she rested her face on the cradle of her palms and felt a hollowness within. A husband was always naked in front of a wife. And vice versa too. A few moments passed in silence.
"I can't write," he finally said, looking at her.
"What do you mean?" she asked. “You have been doing it for years.”
"I don't know, maybe I have dried up. This is the fifth time in a row. There is no confidence in me. I feel so empty, so dead."
Aparna leaned forward and ran her hands through his thinning hair.
"My baby, don't worry, it's just temporary. I am sure of that," she said, as she held his chin with her fingers and shook it gently. It was an admonition mixed with encouragement.
"I don't know," he replied, staring at the plate. He felt ashamed suddenly. He shouldn't have told her his problems. She would worry needlessly. He continued to eat in silence.
"Indro, go and have a bath," Aparna said, when he had finished, and was licking his fingers, "You will feel better."
In the bathroom, he turned on the knob for the shower, and allowed the jets of water to drum on his head for quite a while before he rubbed his hair vigorously with Liril soap, making his head look like it had been covered in snow. He washed off the soap, wiped himself and entered the bedroom, the white towel wrapped around his waist.
Aparna sat on the bed, leafing through the latest issue of Stardust. He felt a little less anxious now. Sandip was sleeping on a divan in the drawing room.
Indranil put on his white kurta-pyjamas and combed his hair with his fingers. He lay down on the bed, the back of his head resting on his palms. He stared at the ceiling in silence. Aparna switched off the light and placed the magazine on the windowsill. The room was bathed in the soft blue of the moonlight. They were like shadows to each other. He could see the white window curtain being lifted up now and then by a gentle breeze.
Aparna sat beside him and began to massage the sides of his forehead. Her fingers were cool and soft. He began to relax. After a while, she kissed him on his eyelids because he had told her, years ago, on their honeymoon, that he liked that a lot. It soothed his tired eyes. Slowly, the tension began to ease away from his mind and his breathing began to get steadier. He put his hand between the buttons of the nightie and tweaked her nipples. Aparna quickly became aroused, the nipples becoming pointed within moments, but he was too tired and within moments, he was fast asleep.
Aparna stared at his face for several moments. She had wished for some sex. They made love rarely now. Somehow, Indranil always seemed so tired and uninterested in sex. She wondered briefly whether the marriage was a bit shaky. She spent so many hours alone at home and it was so boring. She knew that she loved Indro but their marriage seemed stagnant. It was clear that he was having problems in the work place.

The sunlight lit up a square patch of floor in the bedroom as Sandip tapped his father’s ankles.
"Baba, Baba," he said, "get up."
Indranil blearily opened his eyes and looked at his son. Those big round sensitive eyes of his son were filled with pride and happiness. "What is it," he said, "can't you let an old man sleep?"
"Baba," Sandip said, smiling, "your report has come. See."
Indranil tightened inwardly, as he reached out for the newspaper. He flipped it to the back page and saw his byline, "By Indranil Dhar," in neat, black, capital letters.
"Holders Mohun Bagan," he read through the report. It was precise and to the point. Sanjib had done a good job, as usual, but Indranil felt a sense of shame. How could he tell his son that he hadn't written the report?
“Ah yes, Baba’s report,” he said, as he quickly glanced at the other headlines on the page. Then he folded the newspaper and gave it back to his son, with a smile, "So, how is school?”
“Fine, Baba, I have come first in spelling and arithmetic,” Sandip said, his face gleaming in pride.
Indranil tweaked his son’s chin. “Good boy, good. I am very happy to hear that. Keep it up,” he said, as he searched for his slippers with his feet.
“Thank you Baba,” Sandip said.
“Sandip, hurry up, or you will be late for school,” Aparna called out from the kitchen.
“Coming Ma,” Sandip said, as he smiled at his father and walked out of the room.
Indranil got up and went into the bathroom and had a shave and a bath. As he dressed, Sandip came into the room, in his white shirt and grey shorts, with a khaki bag on his back, “Baba, I am off.”
Indranil again squeezed his son’s chin and said, “See you in the evening. Have a good day.”
“Okay Baba,” Sandip said and ran from the room. Both of them could hear the honk of the school bus downstairs.
Indranil sat down to a breakfast of omelette and four slices of toast and a cup of coffee.
"Did you sleep well?" Aparna asked, watching Indranil eat.
“Yes, your massage really relaxed me,” he said.
Aparna smiled at Indranil and said, “Thank you.” Suddenly, she had a desire to meet Manik today. Yesterday night’s lack of sex had whetted her appetite. She wondered whether Manik would be at home.
Indranil glanced at Aparna’s glowing face, and realised that she did not really understand what he had said yesterday night about his problem. How do you explain writer's block to anyone? Or burnout? Or staleness? Or tiredness of the spirit?
He was, by now, so far away from the reputation that he had established. In public, at the work place, he was popular and charming and gregarious. To his wife, he was the steady husband. To his eight-year-old son Sandip, he was a hero because his classmates thought very highly of him.
To his parents, he was the great investigative reporter. To his sisters, he was the cute, sweet and charming Indro. And yet he knew, now, he was just a parody of what he had been in the past.
Drip, drip, drip...the spirit had seeped out of him.
He knew that he would grind to a halt soon. It was just a matter of time. Then the management would come to know. They were experts at finding out whether a man was finished or whether he had some fire left. They lived off the work of the journalists and had nothing to fear like writer's block. They would praise him when he wrote well, knowing that a writer's sense of insecurity was deep.
"What a lovely article you have written today," they would say.
"Really Indranil," he remembered the Circulation Manager, Shyamal Ghosh, once telling him, "if you are not a genius, then who is?"
What did a little praise matter to him, as long as he could collect his bonuses for selling so many magazines and newspapers in so many sectors and as long as he secured the loan from the company to build that house in Birbhum, to live in comfortable retirement. And here, in Kolkata, Indranil was barely able to make ends meet with his salary.
All the year around, he had to keep his spirit fresh and sharp, so that his writing would be enthusiastic and incisive. But now, he could no longer keep up the battle to stay young forever. The knocks of life were knocking his zest also. His writing was losing its sharpness. The management would then sit up and say, with a smirk on their faces, "The bastard's finished!"
He remembered what had happened to cricket correspondent Dipankar Mitra. There was a time when, almost every day, there was an article by him in the newspaper. But he had gone stale and slowly but relentlessly, he was sidelined. No more Test matches to cover or one dayers or even a Ranji Trophy match at the Eden Gardens.
Again, the word had passed around: "Let the bum be content with subbing copy." And so, almost overnight, Dipankar became desk-bound. His spirit was crushed but he was abjectly dependent on his salary, so he swallowed his humiliation and continued to work.
Indranil ate slowly. It was silent save for the tick tock of the wall clock.
“Indro, Sandip wants a cycle" Aparna said.
“How is he doing in class?” Indranil asked. He hoped that his son would study more than him--he was only a graduate--and get a better job with a good salary.
"Oh," Aparna said, her eyes shining, "he is very clever. He's coming third in class."
“Then I guess, we can buy him one,” Indranil said, as he sipped his coffee. “Or maybe we can set him a goal. Come second in class and you will get a cycle. Then he will appreciate what he gets.”
“Very good idea,” Aparna said, smiling.
“I don’t want to do what my own dad did,” Indranil said, looking at Aparna. “He gave me whatever I asked because he was doing well as a lawyer. It spoiled me. Made me lazy and I did not appreciate what I was given.”
Aparna held his chin and said, “You are not spoiled at all. But I agree it is a good idea. I will tell Sandip about it.”
Indranil nodded and his mind began to wander. He wondered whether he was all that innocent in his career. There were many times when he had written an article with a biased viewpoint. Either he was supporting the players or the officials, depending upon his personal relations with them at that particular time. He was making careers and destroying them through the power of his pen and he relished this power.
But, after a while, he developed a contempt for the reader, because he could manipulate them so easily. This was the great power of journalism--a few people influencing the minds of many towards a particular mode of thinking. How could he have any respect for people he could manipulate?
Therefore, he wrote and charged or accused or supported according to his whim and fancy. Was he any different from the managers? They were as keen on power as he was. Everyone, everywhere, wanted to dominate but his hold on power was now shaky because the skill to write forcefully had started to wane.
Snapping back to the present, he stared at the face of his wife and realised that she was quite content to live in this small flat, without any desire to lord over anyone, without this urge to be well known. Indranil felt disgusted with himself. He got up and went to the washbasin.
"I'll be late," he said, kissing his wife on the cheek.
He walked quickly down Ekbalpore Road, towards the main road. The sun's rays hit his chest through the thin cotton shirt that he wore. It was a humid morning. He reached the main road and was immediately hit by the ceaseless din of the traffic--horns being pressed, brakes being jammed. The buses came one by one and they were all jam-packed. People, with perspiration dripping from their faces, were holding desperately on to the rod at the entrance, with just a toehold on the last step. All of a sudden, he felt tired. He had no desire to fight his way into a bus. Crossing the road, he jumped into a vacant taxi.
"Riverside," he said, as he leaned back into the seat gratefully.
He had a sudden desire to escape from everybody--from the people in the office, from the footballers on the Maidan, from his wife, from his son, from his friends...he wanted to just be by himself.
He lit a cigarette and stared out of the window. As the taxi hurtled down the road, he saw two bare-chested men, in coloured lungis, sitting on a charpoy, under a tree, eating breakfast on round steel plates, at a roadside restaurant. There was a truck parked near it. ‘Drivers,’ he thought.
Soon, the taxi went thudding over the crater-like holes on the Kidderpore Bridge. Indranil bits his lips in irritation at the jolts he received because of the cab’s poor shock absorbers. Near Hastings, the road became clear. Ten minutes later, the vehicle reached the riverside and Indranil got out with a sigh of relief. He crossed the railway tracks that ran parallel to the river and stood near the railing.
It was deserted at this time of the morning. A steady breeze blew and the leaves in the trees nearby made a rustling sound. A ship was docked far away and he could see men in white overalls with long brooms cleaning the deck. He saw the small boats, with the tiny awnings, bobbing up and down, near the jetty. Far ahead in the distance, he observed the steel-grey arches of the Howrah Bridge wrapped in a haze of polluted air. He flicked the cigarette butt into the water and sat down on a bench. He gazed at the yellowish water and, for a change, the stresses of life seemed far away. For a long time, he sat like this and then, he sensed somebody come and sit beside him. He looked sideways and saw that it was a woman.
"Saab," she said, in a gruff voice, "do you want?"
She wore a red and white striped cotton saree with a red blouse and she was chewing pan. Her mouth was red and she had stringy hair. She wore plastic orange slippers.
He stared at her, and then at her big breasts, which were her only redeeming feature. It looked odd because she was so thin. He wasn't in the mood and hadn't gone for years.
Still, he asked, in a bored voice, "How much?"
"Seventy for me and thirty for the boatman," she said, gesturing to the small boat that was bobbing up and down near a flight of wet steps. The boatman, a wiry, bare-bodied man, wearing khaki shorts, sat on his haunches and was puffing away at a beedi.
"Forty for you and twenty for the boatman," Indranil said.
"Fifty for me," she bargained, chewing away.
He nodded and followed her, watching her bum move under the saree. He carefully went down the steps, and jumped onto the boat.
As he stretched out his right hand, to regain balance, he remembered a quote he had read in some book:
"Sin," it said, "was an escape from emptiness."
True, he thought, as he took off his shirt.

(Published in Debonair Magazine)

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