Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Executive Editor ( A short story)

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Executive Editor does not write these days.
This Monday night, he sits at the table, at the corner of his study, just off the bedroom with the open window in front of him. The table lamp casts an arc of light over the computer monitor. He sips his fifth glass of rum and stares through the window. In the distance, he can see the leaves in the few trees being blown about by the sea breeze. This rustling sound, which he has heard since his childhood, always had a soothing effect.
Mumbai is sleeping. Most of the two and three-storeyed buildings, in the Bandra residential area where he lives, are in darkness.
It is 1 A.M.
In the bedroom, the beige curtains are drawn. His wife is sleeping, a cotton sheet covering her, till her neck.
Earlier, she had asked, "Aren't you coming to sleep?"
"No Savitri, I have to write an editorial," he had replied.
"But Mohan, you can't seem to be able to write anything these days," she said. "You sit up late and nothing happens."
It was true.
He was suffering from writer's block. The last time he wrote with vitality was when he had just been promoted to Executive Editor, but that was six years ago. He had risen up the hierarchy, superseding higher-ranked journalists, through some clever, sustained flattery of the owner cum Editor-in-Chief, the middle-aged and paunchy Ajit Wagle. Once, during a two-month stretch, Mohan had also provided a bored Marathi housewife, who was looking for some excitement. Ajit was grateful to him for that because she had been a superb lover.
But Ajit soon developed an insatiable appetite. Mohan met a high society lady at an opening of an art gallery and persuaded her to spend a night with the boss. But she later complained to him that Ajit was into kinky sex. He had urinated on her face and said, "In this summer heat, this is my special Golden Shower for you."
One of the immediate benefits of Ajit getting sexually satisfied was that Mohan ended up getting some plum assignments. Like the trip to China and Russia in the press pool on the Prime Minister's aircraft. Associate Editor Sudhir Godbole was supposed to go, but at the last moment, Ajit told him that Assistant Editor Mohan Manjrekar would be going. Godbole became a permanent enemy.
Ajit had also arranged for Mohan to get an exclusive interview with sitar maestro Ram Pandit immediately after his third marriage, sidelining the lesbian art critic, Renuka Menon, in the process. The interview had gone done well with readers but Renuka quit in a huff.
Once he started getting his promotions, he began to move up faster, as if he was on a treadmill, till he had ended up as Executive Editor. But as he rose, he lost the urge to write. Power was the new kick.
He exulted inwardly when he saw juniors with a pinched look on their faces, their knees wobbling, when he shouted at them. Once he had been screamed at like that, by seniors. Now it was his turn to take revenge.
In the silence of the wintry night, he hears the snores of his wife, which sounds, to him, like the snort of a pig.
He thought of the time when they were about to get married, two decades ago. How innocent and vivacious Savitri looked! The plaited black hair, the guileless brown eyes, and that coquettish habit of hers, whenever she felt embarrassed or shy or excited, of putting a forefinger in her mouth and licking the tip. It had endeared her to him.
But now she had become a loud-mouth and always walked with her nose turned up.
Who did she think she was? After all, it was he, through his contacts, who had got her the job as a management trainee in a reputed advertising company. But she had also gone up swiftly in the pecking order. He had heard rumours of her sleeping around with her bosses, but had ignored it.
What was the point?
He did not want a divorce. In India, they still looked down, despite all the liberal talk, on people who broke up their marriages. A split could have a fatal repercussion on his career. He did not want to take the risk. Nor did she.
He was also not that innocent himself.
Occasionally, he would borrow a friend's apartment during the day and screw a wide-eyed new recruit, with a lush, untouched body, stars in her eyes, full of illusions of journalists chasing the truth at all costs, nailing down the wrong doers and all that bullshit. He played along and talked about the glories of journalism, as he seduced her.
So, he reasoned, if he could have fun, why not his wife?
She was now General Manager, Marketing and was always elaborately coiffed. She wore silk sarees, with postage stamp size blouses, with a deep cleavage that displayed large creamy breasts. It distracted colleagues and opponents all the time.
They had no children.
She said that it was his fault and he replied that it was some unknown deficiency in her. They did not bother to go to for a medical check-up. Where was the time? Besides, their careers were far too important than this silly subject of making babies.
Sometimes, at night, when his wife was in an irritated mood, having brought home office files, she would withdraw her sexual favours. If Mohan was in a sexually charged state, he would rage at her, calling her a slut. She would retort by saying he was a pimp and an ass licker. After the fight was over, there was a horrible, numbing silence...
He would start drinking.
It was strange that as he became more successful, he felt the need to drink more. Alcohol had this irresistible quality of stifling the twinges of conscience that he experienced, moments before he fell into a disturbed sleep.
Events of the past would flash into his mind.
Of the time when, for the sixth consecutive time, he spiked the article of the promising writer, Anand Navalkar. Such an outrageous talent, Anand always looked like a fish out of water, and then all of a sudden, he would write a brilliant article.
When he allowed a few to be published, letter writers praised Anand’s talent.
Mohan felt a pang of inadequacy. Because no one complimented him sincerely on the stuff that he wrote. Most of the time, he was praised only because of the position that he held. He was sure of that. There was such a marked difference in tone between genuine plaudits and appreciation, just for formality's sake. He realised, with a plunging sense of inferiority, that, like trash, his writings disappeared into the wastepaper basket in readers’ minds.
This made him angry and vengeful. He mocked Anand, treating him with contempt. What deepened the feeling of dislike was that Anand, unlike other subordinates, was not obsequious. Mohan had no option but to reject the write-ups. He quickly turned into a Salieri.
"You know, Anand," he said in a tone, "this article could have been good, but the angle is just not right" or "this could have been a good short story, but the characters are wooden".
It is so easy to cook up excuses!
But deep down, Mohan knew that he was a humbug. His life had become a lie. Sometimes, the senior management asked him, "How come you are not writing?" and he would reply that administration was so time-consuming.
"Then ask Anand to produce something. People like his articles. He has talent," they would say.
Mohan contracted his eyes, bit his lower lip, full of a pretended sadness and disclosed that the writer was undisciplined and arrogant.
"Arrogant?" the powers-that-be exclaimed, "then fuck the bastard. Let him know who is the boss."
Mohan would pucker up his face, in a pensive manner and say, "But I want to save his talent. He is such a marvellous writer."
"You are a wonderful, compassionate man," they replied as they tapped him appreciatively on the shoulder, "Now tell us what is happening in the editorial section?"
He would then spy on his colleagues, on his superiors, on his subordinates, because the management had such an inexhaustible appetite to know. He was a good mine of information. He kept them up to date on what was happening. Who was going to bed with whom? And why? Who was ill-treating his assistants? And were they happy, those little serfs called sub-editors who did all the hard, thankless labour of composing matter and page making, one of the most essential tasks, if the newspaper had to come out every morning. But they were rarely shown any appreciation or acknowledged as human beings or paid decent salaries. He told them whatever he had come to know in the past one week.
The management was happy. They rewarded Mohan with a furnished apartment, an air-conditioned car, membership in the top clubs of the city, and given a generous entertainment allowance and substantial annual increments. His position was secure. There was nothing to worry about. He knew that he was useful to the management.
In the social circuit, he was much sought-after because of his position. After all, in Mumbai, there are only three worthwhile English-language newspapers. With pride, he introduced himself to other smart alecks: "I am Mohan Manjrekar, executive editor of so-and-so newspaper."
They shook hands and smiled slyly as they realised instinctively that they all possessed the same character: smooth-talking sycophants, with an eye on the main chance. They had a drink in a bar and did deals for mutual benefit.
For example: Meeting Ravi Singh of Mumbai Polyesters was important. He wanted some positive press coverage before his company went public and the newspaper needed some advertisements. A mutual scratching of each other's back and the arrangement was agreed upon, with congratulatory smiles all around.
It is now 1.30 A.M. Mohan is drunk; he had been drinking from 11 P.M. Seven pegs of ‘Old Monk’ rum have been consumed.
He types out a sentence: "Politics in lndia is a cesspool of corruption." He realises, at once, that it is a horrible cliche. He stops typing. He can't go on.
He gets up, his head swinging, and goes to the bedroom and stares at his wife, by the diffuse light of the street lamp.
It is said that in sleep, a person's soul comes to the surface. His wife's face looks mean and bitter, the lips turned downward in a perpetual scorn. He feels a surging hatred rise up in him. He puckers his mouth and spits on her face He does not realise it but it is a self-portrait of his life.

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