Deprived of sleep, he hobbled through the ruffling pages of his manuscript. Gusts of wind brushing his cheeks, making noises under his earlobes. He lurched towards the window and shut it off. It was six in the morning. He sat down to order the ruffled pages of his manuscript and thought of sleeping again but he couldn’t. He tried to write something but failed. At last, he decided to take a shower and get ready to ride his motorcycle around the village. It was probably the best time for a round. He liked the breeze making its way through his collar, chilling his innards under the insipid sun. The winds acted like a warrior fighting when the enemy was half-asleep. Once the sun gained its vigor, the breeze would turn more or less into loo. And, that wasn’t something a bike rider would like.
Children weren’t only in the houses that ran to the windows in awe when he sputtered through the narrow alleys of the village. Mothers, maintaining their position on the charpoys, would dart him from the corner of their eyes. And fathers, if present, would reprimand the children for some made-up reason to shroud their jealousy. Girls, not to mention, were magnetized to the windows or ventilators of their kitchen. Amid those scents of food they cooked, they would stand like mannequins until he went past their sight. His six feet height, all covered with muscles was a piece of art that every girl in the village would like to examine. His muscles, good looks and height weren’t the sole reason for all this hype. Jamal was the only literate bloke in the village. And, this quality, alone, outscored the residue. There were others, but, all they could do was write and read their name.
In the evenings, he would set his typewriter and hop on the motorcycle and ride to the Peepal tree. It provided shadow to many, but, money to Jamal only. He wrote letters for those who couldn’t and took a just price in return. In strive to earn and shift to the city, he would spend a good chunk of his time under the tree. He was privy to secrets of many. He knew who loved or loathed who. Though he wasn’t good at remembering names or addresses as he had to write a backlog of letters daily, he would remember the few. The special ones. Like a father who used to come every Friday to write to his son. Or a lover, who would come at least thrice a week. Some people tried to come in the late hours so they could find him in solitary. He would read them the letters their loved ones had sent. And, ah, he used to do it so eloquently that people cried. He would imitate it the way writer might have recited while writing.
That day, like usual, he laid his woolen mat on the concrete sitting and put his typewriter along. On one of the tree branches, he dangled a metallic slate which mentioned the prices for hand-written and typed letters. Being the only one able to write in the village, he used to get a good horde of customers. It wasn’t orderly in the beginning but now he had tied another swinging slate with an advice to stand in row, people have started to consider this option. He had chalked both the slates himself. It was a kind of promotion for people who couldn’t read or write properly. The words inscribed had some kind of confidence for the customer. They would see the beautifully curved letters and appease their hearts that they were in the right hands now.
In all the pounded voices of sweeping leaves, rustling branches, whining people and typewriter clicking, he noticed a croaky female voice asking for her letter to be written. It was a voice a child gets after enjoying his candies and ice-lollies in the winter. Despite of being muffled and hard-to-hear, it stood out and demanded Jamal’s attention. He hardly remembered who dictated what but since he was the one who connected lines and formed the words, he would get to know if someone returned for another letter. The female was a new customer, he realized.
I have been watching you since quite a long now. I am not even sure that I should be doing this. But, I want to tell you that how I think about you all the nights and dream about the days to come. The days that I want to spend with you, along you.
Please send me a reply to this.
She didn’t mention her name. So, Jamal didn’t ask. Not sundry, but, many liked their names incognito. Besides, writing a name wasn’t a big deal. They could do it their selves.
She extended her hand to pay the nominal fee of 50 paisa as he had mentioned on the slate. But, that were few lines that he inked with his pen so he managed the change and gave it back to her. For a moment, the world paused. He saw her wrapped in a dupatta, tucked in her lips. One eye that he could see and bit of her pink lips. Enough. They were enough to take him in her spell.
Next morning he woke up to experience the change in directions of winds. A new ream of papers, he bought at the beginning of this month, was about to burst open in the air. Few pages of his poetry slid under the bed. He stooped down to count them three. He picked one and lifted himself up to take the residue from either side.
Someone knocked at the door.
From the crevice beneath, where he used to see the light pregnant with shining motes, came an envelope. It said his name. He opened the door to find no one but a braying donkey and an adorable black cat that stared the letter in his hand. He picked up the residue pages and maintained them in order. This time, he put them in the drawer. Since the winds had changed their direction, pages sliding under the bed would now be a daily exercise. Better to take precautions, he said to himself.
He then took the envelope and flipped sides to see the sender’s name or address. None found. He fondled his head to go through the memories. It was perhaps a reply from the publishing company. He had been sending manuscripts to different companies but the last one he sent was like a year ago. Without more delay, he resolved to open the envelope to see the mystical thing in it. It had a letter he recognized from yesterday’s session. The female with croaky voice had sent her the same letter. It had a scent that he couldn’t relate to any of his belongings. It wasn’t the perfume of his ink or the essence of his sherbet.
Besides, the written content was augmented. The letter had an addition of few more lines.
“My name’s Aisha. I have been seeing you from my window. Please keep the reply letter with you.”
The writing style was different. And, in many ways, better than Jamal’s. It had flowered letters, the words were sharper and the ink was darker. The curves were smoother and the edges weren’t smudged at all.
But wasn’t Jamal the only person who could read or write properly?
He tucked out a new page from the ream. Put it on his study table and perched on his comfy seat. Playing with the pen, he thought of words and sentences as if he was writing his manuscript. Those which garnered positive replies from the publishers. But still, none made it to the printer. So, he wanted the reply better than those.
“Dear Aisha, I am also amazed by your looks. Your lips had some kind of intoxication and your eyes, your eyes were so deep that I could have lost my soul yesterday.”
He wrote this and many others. All rejected. Fisted, crumpled, destroyed and wasted. In every reply, he would find some flaw. Some were cheesy, some flirty, some immoral. While many fell into the pool of non-creative.
He spent hours sitting on his comfy chair that now ached the body. And, for that matter, he shifted his weight on his haunches consecutively. He looked at the shiny speckles coming in from the crevice. Listened to gusts of wind. Stared the sky from his window. Caressed his matka – a clayey pot. Read romantic books but none gave him the motivation to write. And for the first time in his life, he felt petty. He felt like he was out of words; out of ideas.
He fell asleep on his study table.
With his eyes half open, he saw the pen he left uncapped in his hand. His head bristled, and chest ached. He had been sleeping his-head-on-the-table for hours. The edge of table had made an indentation on his chest. And now, it was time to go for work. But reply, he said to himself.
“Walaikum Assalam dear Aisha,
I don’t know what to say. I have been pondering all the day on what to write and what not to. I like the way you look, your dupatta. No, I mean your lips that tucked the dupatta in. And, the eyes that darted me. And, I am amazed that you can write and, that too, this well.”
He perused the reply again. It wasn’t the best he could have done. It wasn’t even good. But, the reply was mandatory and he had no time. Punctuality was one of the instincts of him that made his business run well.
When he reached, the Peepal tree was already crowded. He looked around to see if he could find Aisha standing in this horde of people. He couldn’t. After every minute, after every customer, the crowd dwindled. So did the hope to see her. It was a farce, he thought.
It was dark now. The only light was of moon that hovered full that night. He picked his typewriter and fastened it with belts.
‘Jamal’ the girl called. The voice wasn’t croaky anymore. The sore throat had been cured now.
He looked back to see the girl standing under the tree. Still in a dupatta, orange this time. She looked anxious but nervous.
‘Have you written the reply?’ she inquired.
‘Yes. But, I have questions. A lot of them. Why did you come late? I was about to go.’ He fished in the reply he wrote in his pocket. ‘Where do you live? I have never seen you before in this village.’
‘So many questions’ the girl said, smilingly. She extended her hand to take the reply.
He handed it over. She left. Without answering Jamal’s questions.
The meetings grew frequent. They would meet almost every night now. The girl would come after everybody else was gone. Under the tree, over the woolen mat, they fluttered with the gusts of wind and talked for hours about their life. Jamal’s plans to go to the city. Her daily chores in the kitchen. And, of course, the love. It was the tree that witnessed their pledges and vows. Their claims and blames; rights and wrongs; poems and songs.
When Jamal saw her face for the first time, he was stunned by the beauty of it. In the nights, he would stare at her. And, in the morning, he would write about it. Her glowing skin, perfectly carved pink lips, deep brown eyes and shoulder-length hair.
Jamal hadn’t been into someone before. He didn’t know if it was love that made him stay and talk restive all the night. It looked like it. He had read it in a number of books.
“When there is one person in your thoughts all the day and then in dreams all the night, yes, you’re in love.
When you talk, you talk about her. When you listen, you want to listen about her. Yes, you’re in love. “
He recalled these lines that he had read somewhere.
The girl showed him where she lived. It was a yellow house built alone near the tree. There were other two houses at a good distance. The house itself was big. Much bigger than Jamal’s one room building. Jamal gauged, it might have five rooms at least.
The girl had a mother, which, according to her, slept all the day. She had some kind of disease that, Aisha said, can’t be cured. Narcolepsy, she mentioned. Jamal had an instinct of keeping quiet when he didn’t know something. He wasn’t aware of Narcolepsy so he remained idle.
Reclining on the tree, the girl sat on the woolen mat. Jamal rested his head on girl’s lap. He had seen it in movies. Lovers, under the tree. Boy’s head on girl’s lap. Counting the shining stars in the sky and talking about love flowing from every part of this universe.
‘They say, in the nights, a witch wanders around this tree.’ She said, her eyes still darting the sky. Her hands stroking his head. ‘Aren’t you afraid of witches?’ she grinned.
‘Witch? Jinn? Magic? All these are nothing but myths. None of them ever existed. These are man-made things.’
‘You don’t believe in such things?’ Aisha asked.
‘I do. My mother does. Everybody, I know, does.’
‘Would you marry me?’ Jamal proposed.
‘In between all this? You propose me between all these Jinns and witches we talk about’ she chuckled.
‘We would go to the city and live a happy life there. It might take time, it might not be as cheerful as I dream it to be, but I want it to be with you.’ Jamal maintained the somberness on his face.
Aisha sat silent. She tried to say something but couldn’t. Jamal couldn’t wait and lifted himself up from the lap. Now both sat facing each other.
‘Don’t you trust me? Love me?’ Jamal asked. His eyes on her eyes. Their hands, interlaced.
‘My mother. I can’t leave her alone.’
‘We can take her to the city with us.’ The anxiousness grew with every proposal he made.
He felt the girl avoiding all these questions. As if she didn’t want to marry. But Jamal, he would never give up.
‘She can’t. She won’t’ she excused. ‘So you don’t believe in the rumored witch?’
‘I can talk to your mother. I have a friend, a Doctor, in the city. We can help her.’ he said. Not concerned about the witch or any other paranormal creature. ‘Is she awake right now? I’ll ask for your hand and I’ll persuade her to come with us.’
‘I can’t say. She sleeps anytime. Almost, every time.’
Jamal followed Aisha through the metallic gates of her house. The metallic gate connected the verandah through a wide alley that had a score of cobwebs.
The verandah was huge, it had marbled floor. In the foyer, they had a chandelier that tinkled with gusts of wind. The moment she lit the candle and turned the tube light on, Jamal saw the foyer properly. It was like one of those he had seen in movies.
‘I’ll see if the ama’s awake’ she lurched towards a room.
Jamal sat down on one of the spring sofas. It had a spring jutted out from one corner. He jumbled up his clothes to avoid any scuffle with the rebel spring. He looked at the kitchen that had no door but an arch that connected the foyer and kitchen. It had white kitchen cabinets and the marble there had a different shade.
‘She is asleep’ Aisha said. ‘Let me show you around’ she locked her elbow with his and escorted her to different spots. The house had more rooms than Jamal had gauged.
He woke up with his shirt buttons open. Shoes still on his feet. He vaguely remembered about the last night. It wasn’t something one should forget about. He could still feel the touch of her cold fingers on his body. Her skin brushing on his. The wet touch of her lips on his. Her eyes filled with pleasure and love. He saw himself in the mirror. Smiling, even if he didn’t want to.
He took the shower, touched every part of his body that, he suspected, she touched. It felt different. Towel wrapped around his waist he sat on the study table. He spent hours writing his and her story. How a boy, a man now, writing letters met a girl under the tree. How the boy perceived the first look of her. He penned down the scenes. The talks. Every minute detail he could remember of. And, yes, he did remember this time. All the things. It was the only thing that prevailed his mind these days. He wanted to lock it down, all these memories, in the pages with his wide toothed fountain pen. That day, he didn’t stare at the shiny motes or listened to the gusts of wind. The motivation he required, was in him, in every part of him. He felt as if the whole world has folded itself and has taken place in some corner of his heart.
He tossed out the towel from his sweaty body and took a shower again before leaving for work.
He took out the box for typewriter from his motorcycle and hopped with Doctor Raheem on it. They sputtered through the narrow alleys crossing rickshaws and wrecked cars on the unpaved roads of his village.
‘How far?’ the doctor shouted in the struggling winds.
‘We are just about to reach’ Jamal replied.
Jamal stopped the bike around the tree. He took out the chain he had with him so he could fasten it with the tree.
‘Where’s the house?’
‘The yellow one. Let me fasten this chain. I’ll show you’
‘There’s only a wreck here’ said the Doctor.
Jamal came running to see the yellow house that wasn’t there anymore. It was a wreck, almost hundred years old on its place.
‘Is there any yellow house around here?’ the doctor inquired from a guy passing by. He seemed high on his heroine but he could answer.
‘Naah.’ He chortled and hobbled away.
Doctor Raheem didn’t stop a moment further than that. He took the keys himself and asked Jamal to perch behind him. He rode him to his home. Took some medicines out from his bag and told Jamal to take it. He said he would consult his friend that would help Jamal.
Jamal wasn’t allowed to loiter around the tree as it would remind him of something non-existent. The medicines had been taking care of him. All he did these days in his room was sleeping and writing. A manuscript of him was accepted and published. He earned enough to move to the city.
He locked the door of his room. Luggage still packed inside. For the last time, he wanted to see the house. It was restricted but he had memories with his hallucinations. He hopped on his bike and rattled on the roads that now looked new to him. The tree had gone barren. The leaves that rustled all the time were nowhere to see.
The house gate had been scarier than he had seen last time. The alley was murkier and the cobwebs grew gigantic. He looked at the sofa with jutted out spring. The bed where they made love. He looked into the mirror where she stood behind him. Her hand curled around his chest. He smiled on his past memories and stroked his head.
For a moment, he felt someone standing behind him. The warm feeling that he had never felt in years. He thought he saw Aisha in the mirror – smiling, a tear in her eyes. It is hallucination he said to himself and stormed away from the room.
Jamal is one of the greatest writers this country has ever seen. But, people say, he never married. He owns a number of apartments in posh areas of this metropolis but he prefers living in a suburb where the only sounds you could hear are either of crows or dogs. In his verandah, he has a tree around which he has set his old typewriter. He rides on his wheeled chair to sit there for hours and write stories and