I wake up earlier than the sun and am at the writing desk without washing my face. The laptop screen illuminates my frontage as I switch it on. Fingers on my keyboard, I open a new word document. Today I will finally start writing my next bestseller.
Except that I don’t write a word. The blank page stares at me until the sun is well settled in the sky and ordinary folks start to venture out of their homes in their quest for livelihood. The flesh is willing, but the mind is uncooperative.
“I am leaving for work,” the wife says. “Your breakfast and lunch are on the table. Also, the monthly wage of the maid is on top of the refrigerator. Give it to her after she finishes her work,” she rounds off her instructions.
I shrug. Worldly affairs are minor matters. I have more significant concerns on my mind. The publisher’s nagging, for one.
Think of the devil. My WhatsApp notification flashes his name.
‘We have a month to the deadline, and it would be great if I could see the book’s synopsis,’ the message reads. He has been sending the same message with different timelines for the last six months.
‘You will receive everything with my final manuscript.’ I copy-paste my previous response and press the send button. There’s nothing to send at the moment. I haven’t written a single page in six months since my last novel failed.
I am what you will call a writer, though I prefer calling myself an artist. After all, writing is art in the written format produced through skill and creativity. Ordinary people, without realising the heights of their ignorance, confine the nomenclature of artists to those using paintbrushes and sketches.
There are not too many things in life that I want to do. Creating art through words, be it in written or oral form, is one of the things I do like. During graduation, I spent more time engaged in debates in the auditorium and editing the college magazine than at the history lectures. I was amused when others around me were busy looking for a career during our final year of college. Odd jobs were enough, and still are, for the chapatis and water I need to survive. A permanent roof above my head was the more formidable challenge; fortunately, there was enough space in my parent’s house to take care of this concern.
So I spent that final year fictionalising my chronicles of doing nothing while surrounded by those struggling to find a dream job without knowing what that dream is. Thanks to the publishing contacts I nurtured during my editorial stint, the book was picked up. Turns out that while people may not exactly like those who don’t conform to the norm, they do derive pleasure from reading about them. My book was a bestseller. More importantly, for me at least, it landed a movie deal.
When a reigning A-list actor headlines a movie directed by an A-list director and produced by an A-list movie studio, the net worth of the book’s writer on which the story is based is bound to increase. The zeros in the amount I got for selling the rights of my good-for-nothing-and-happy-doing-it narrative far exceeded those from the novel’s royalty income. I bought a home that I called my own. My parents weren’t happy finding themselves in the nothing-to-do zone and promptly proceeded to get me settled with a woman of their choice. I didn’t mind. By then, I had decided to be a full-time artist and thought it better to have someone who would look after the house.
I spent all my days and most of my nights in my writing room. In the early days of our marriage, when the wife was bored, I suggested that she go out to work to have a life. The good woman called me a progressive husband. I liked the phrase and used it as the title of my second novel revolving around a man gazing out of the window while his wife was burdened with paying that house’s bills. My publisher printed more copies of the book in the first run than my previous one, yet had to go for a reprint. People indeed like reading about things that they rather not encounter in life.
My net worth increased some more with the screen adaptation of my second book. Publishers started falling on my feet to sign me up. Unlike other artists, I don’t know what the struggle to get published or discovered is all about.
My quest with words resulted in five books in the last four years, with the first two being the most successful. The third one didn’t sell as many copies as its predecessors but got a small-budget movie adaptation as its claim to fame. The fourth one sold just enough copies to get me a commission for two more books, while the fifth one was a spectacular failure, with most of the inventory gathering dust in some corner of the bookstores. No production house touched it with a barge pole.
Failure is destiny but falling flat on the ground after tasting success is cruelty. I miss the limelight. For the first time in my twenty-eight-year-old life, I am someone. I don’t want to go back to being anyone. In fact, I want to be known as the best artist-cum-writer ever in the country. I want to write a masterpiece.
That quest for that masterpiece has proved elusive for the last six months. Words, facts, and thoughts have all deserted me. My hands freeze on the keyboard. Earlier, I wrote about what I wanted to write. Now I want to write what others want to read. And I don’t understand other people well enough to know what they like reading.
“Do you always write at home, sir?” the maid asks as I hand over her monthly wages. “I have seen movies where artists work in public places like restaurants and coffee shops,” she continues.
Hallelujah. Like other creative people, I should seek inspiration in public places rather than wait for inspiration to strike.
I walk to my seat, pack the laptop, tuck the wallet in my back pocket, pick up the house key from the key ring at the entrance, and lock the house. I hail an auto and ask the driver to drop me at the nearest café he knows of.
The auto takes a detour off the main road adjacent to my house and stops ten minutes later in front of ‘The Little Hearts Café.’ The place stands on its own, some distance away from the hustle-bustle of the adjoining supermarket. There are very few cars parked outside its entrance. I alight from the auto and tell the driver to keep the change.
I walk into the narrow alley of potted plants, admiring the neat cluster of chairs and tables in the garden. I then push the door to my right and go inside.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the person at the counter smiles.
“Table for one,” I say.
“Take any table you like, sir. You will find the menu on the table. Smoking is strictly not allowed, and we only serve non-alcoholic beverages.”
The room is spacious and empty. A couple of modern paintings adorn the walls. As I cross the miniature bookshelf suspended in the air, my eyes fall on the ludo sprawled on one of the tables. A guitar takes up most of the long bench at the rear.
I take the second table from the back. From the window, I have a clear view of the outside world.
I open my laptop and decide against inserting the Wi-Fi password mentioned on the table’s placard; I can do without the distraction of Gmail and YouTube. After ages, I actually type something and say a silent thanks to my maid.
“Excuse me, sir,” a voice calls out just when I am about to start the second para. I look up to berate the person, but the words drown in my throat at the sight of the specimen. Chubby cheeks, dimple chin, rosy lips, teeth within, curly hair, very fair, eyes are… it is here that there is a divergence from the rhyme, though the black eyes are lovely nevertheless. Dressed in pristine white from top to toe, she seems like an angel from heaven.
“Your order, sir,” she says, pen and paper in hand.
Little Hearts is a café, after all.
I browse the menu. “A watermelon juice,” I say, “and you may repeat the same after another hour.”
“Pardon me for asking, sir, but are you Parin Behera, the writer?” she asks.
This is the first instance of someone I don’t know recognising me.
“Yes. How do you know?” I ask.
“I have read all your books. You look exactly like your photo on their back covers,” she says.
Another first for me. Meeting someone who has read all my books.
“You have also read my last book, The End All of Be All?”
“Yes, I have.”
“What do you think of it?”
“Not one of your best. The plot was good, but the slow narration killed the story.” Very close to my publisher’s summary of the book.
“You seem to have an eye for detail, dear lady,” I respond.
“Call me Alina. I am an aspiring author. I work in this café during the day and pen down my inspirations at night. You are my mentor; I have learnt a lot from your work,” she says.
Her words stir something in the depths of my heart.
She speaks in a torrent before I can respond. “What a coincidence! I just finished drafting my first manuscript, and here you are. Can you go through it and let me know the pointers to improve? You may even recommend it to your publisher if you find it worthwhile.”
My first instinct is to say no. I don’t like anyone’s writing other than my own and hardly read. Besides, I am not exactly in a position to recommend anything or anyone to my publisher.
I look into her eyes and say, “Mail your manuscript to me. I will go through it when I have time. Where can I note down my email id for you?”
She promptly hands me a folded paper napkin from the table. Somewhat disappointed, I write my email id on the napkin.
“Your order today is on me, sir,” she says and walks off before I can protest.
I return to my word file and read the previous paragraph twice to regain my flow and write for I don’t know how long. When I take my eyes off the laptop, I see two watermelon juices neatly arranged on my opposite side. I don’t know when they were deposited on the table.
My phone rings as I empty the first glass. It is the wife.
“Where are you?” she asks. She is standing outside the locked door of our house, not having the habit of taking the second set of keys to work.
I reluctantly get up, glad to have written five pages. I intend to come to this cafe every day until I finish my manuscript.
“My bill, please,” I say at the counter.
“Alina said that you have paid for your bill,” the man replies.
I pull open the door and almost collide with Alina.
“Leaving?” she asks.
“I will come tomorrow,” I say, “provided you let me pay for my order.”
I notice her pearl-white teeth as she tells, “I will mail you my manuscript tonight.”
“Can’t wait,” I lie and disappear from her sight.
I sit at my writing desk, not having the dinner that the wife has prepared after our altercation. She isn’t happy with my decision to leave home for work every morning to evening. It upsets her household routine with the maids. After my unsuccessful attempts to explain how artists find their inspirations, I told her to quit her job in order to wait for the maids to come for housework. The arrow met its mark, and she left me alone with the dinner after that.
I have not written a single word since and am waiting for dawn to arrive to depart for the Little Hearts Café.
The email notification from Alina on the bottom right of the laptop catches my attention. She hasn’t wasted time. I have to kill time. Why not read my way to sleep?
I download the attachment and open the first page. Sleep vanishes as I turn page after page of Words That Lie.
I reach the end of Alina’s manuscript and realise dawn has dawned without notice. It was unputdownable. Being the first draft, it required polishing here and there, but overall, the book is a masterpiece.
I relax in my chair, my head full of Words That Lie.
“Wake up.” A gentle voice enters my sleep-addled brain. I open my eyes to see the wife with a cup of tea in hand.
“You were to leave early,” she says.
“I slept late. I will sleep some more and go after a brunch,” I say. “Do take your set of keys while leaving for work.”
Alina’s work doesn’t leave my thoughts even after the wife does. I lie in bed with my eyes open, barely thinking about my nascent manuscript.
It is 1 pm when I walk into the Little Hearts. A familiar face at the counter greets me. I nod and walk toward my regular table.
I open my laptop and start making changes to Words That Lie.
“Good afternoon, sir.” I don’t have to look at her to recognise the voice.
“Good afternoon, Alina. I was waiting for you,” I say.
“I am honoured, sir. What for?”
“To give the order. Carrot juice for me today. And you can repeat it every two hours till I am here.”
“Sure, sir. Did you get a chance to read my manuscript?”
“Oh yes. I did peruse it quickly last night after your email.”
“Thank you, sir. What do you think of it?”
“Needs a lot of work, Alina. The plot has promise. But the narration, the character sketches, and syntax need a major overhaul. The ending is very out of sync with contemporary times and needs modification.”
The twinkle goes out of her eyes as she says, “Thank you for your feedback, sir. I will work on the manuscript to make it better.”
“It will take a lot of time, Alina. I have a proposition for you.”
“A proposition, sir?”
“Yes. Why don’t we collaborate on the manuscript’s revision? I will make all the necessary changes and take it to my publisher. We can co-author the book and get an equal share of the royalties. What do you say?”
“I am flattered, sir. But I want my first publication, good or bad, to bear my name. I am sure you understand, sir.” With that, she takes away my final chance at redemption.
“I do, Alina,” I reply with a straight face.
She leaves, and I continue amending her work. It has become my work now.
My publisher calls me the day after I email him the manuscript, five days before the deadline.
“You have outdone yourself, Parin,” he says without preamble. “The truth is I was not sure what I would receive from you if anything at all. But this is outstanding work. This book will outsell all your past works put together. Mark my words.”
I don’t know what to say.
“I am commissioning five thousand copies in the first print run,” he says.
“That is huge,” I blurt out. My biggest success had a print run of three thousand in its first run.
“This work deserves it. We will bring it out in record time. My editors tell me that not many changes are required. You have outdone yourself,” he reiterates like a broken record.
“Thank you.” What else to say? “By the way, what title have you selected?”
“The last of your ten suggestions is the best fit. Words That Lie has such a beautiful and haunting feeling to it.”
“At least change the title,” I plead.
“What do you mean? Why?”
I recover my composure. “I believe some of the other titles will go better with the book.”
“We will see what my marketing team has to say about it,” he says unconvincingly.
I cut the call while in the middle of his outdone yourself line.
Parin Behera’s best work ever. Parin Behera has surpassed himself. Words That Lie is a masterpiece. I look at the headlines of several newspaper clippings that my publisher has sent.
It’s a month since the release of my sixth novel, which is flying off the shelves. I am in discussions with two leading production houses for the movie adaptation of Words That Lie.
“I didn’t know that going outside to write will make such a difference to your creativity,” the wife remarks as I am about to leave for yet another book signing event. “I am sorry for the fuss I created that day about seven months ago. Thank God you didn’t listen to me.”
“Why do you say so?” I ask.
“Words That Lie is different from your previous works. In fact, the style is so distinct that it is as if another Parin has written it.”
“What do you mean? I have written it.”
“Of course. That was a compliment. What happened?”
But I am already outside the door and inside my car, afraid of the wife finding me out.
‘What about Alina?’ I muse as I drive to the bookshop in the Central Mall. She would have found out by now. She and I had spoken a lot about writing, literature and my work during my sojourn at the café. I stopped going to the cafe after emailing my manuscript.
I look at my watch. There is time. I take a detour for Little Hearts. I need to talk to Alina and make her understand my actions. I will share my royalties with her and push her next book to my publisher. Perhaps I will be able to sleep then.
I park my car in front of the café’s entrance. The potted plants in the alley are all shriveled, the grass on the lawn outside is no longer luxuriant, and the chairs and tables are covered with dust.
The familiar face at the counter greets me sans a smile.
I go to my regular table. Half of the lights in the place were switched off. The spine of Words That Lie screams at me as I pass the unkempt bookshelf on the way.
The atmosphere at Little Hearts is now better suited to a paranormal story.
I look out of the window and wait.
“Can I take your order?” a disinterested voice reaches my ears.
I turn towards her. She is not my angel.
“Where is Alina?” I ask the blonde in black.
“I am sorry?” She blinks. I get up and run to the counter.
“Where is Alina?” I ask.
“I don’t know, sir,” he replies. “She put this place on the market a month ago. A week later, it was sold, and she went without saying goodbye. This after we worked together for five years.”
“Put this place on the market? She owned this place?”
“She did, though looking at her, you couldn’t tell she was the boss lady. Converted her house into a café after her father’s death five years ago. She even used to fill up for other waitresses on their day-offs. It was one of her substitute days when you came here the first time. After that, she told me she would serve you whenever you were around.
“Is there a forwarding address? Can I have her phone number, please?”
“This was her home, sir. I don’t know where she might have gone. I have tried her number several times, but she is not taking calls.”
“Share it with me, nevertheless.” His eyes widen at the generous tip on the counter.
My heart is heavy, and my head reverberates with a plot as the phone rings.
“Parin, where are you?” my publisher asks. “People are waiting for you.”
“I got an idea for my next work and stopped on my way to pen it down,” I say, the words partly true. “You are going to love this story. Will be there in fifteen minutes.”
I close my eyes and breath deeply. “I will make it up, my angel,” I mutter as Alina’s face comes in front of my eyes.
My next book will be the story of Alina’s genius and my transgression. I will declare loud and clear that the book is based on a true story. Alina will get her due, and I will regain my sleep.
This time the words won’t lie.
Even though writers aren’t the first people to come to mind when people think of artists, creative writing is most commonly considered an art form. Some dictionaries, including the Merriam-Webster, include writing as one of the examples of art.
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