The story haunts me; strictly speaking, it is not a story. In fact, it is a fragment of events on its way to become one. It has no conclusion, an essential part of a story. It is like a lidless and bottomless receptacle. But the latest literary charivari argues that a story need not have an ending. I would have grabbed at this opening, but the story is about a friendship that is on the verge of fruition. I thought, rather concluded, I could never write the finis in a cold climate in the northeast battered by cyclones named after women generally to sound less harsh. Cold climate brings to my mind a Nancy Mitford title of long ago Love In A Cold Climate. So I took off for the warmer southeast Pacific coast by an eight-hour flight.
Friends thought I was running away from the story that needed an ending.. But they didn’t know the story also was pursuing me southwest, helping me give the lie to the rumor of jettisoning the story. Here is the story beginning as an awkward daily exercise in deflections and evasions between two strangers. The story does not get an ending because it would end a friendship on the point of anthesis.See how the story begins and gets stuck as it approaches the winning line!
We were strangers familiar to each other, familiar because we worked under the same false ceiling, for the same tight-fisted media-owning slave driver. Yet not a word passed between us, not even a smile of knowingness, for the four years we have known each other. This charade remained undisturbed, a state so amorphous it eludes definition. Wait, I remember an occasion when we entered the same aisle from opposite ends and found blocking each other’s way. She blushed and I smiled and pressed myself against the flank of the aisle to let her pass. This short break of exchanging smiles of recognition disappeared when she had suddenly stopped reporting for work. No clue about where she had gone. Even if one were available, what do I do with that info? Stop thinking about it, you cad, my inner voice chided me.. The reason could be matrimony or maternity. I couldn’t think of any other reason for an answer. Were there other possibilities I haven’t explored? Why don’t you check with any one of her colleagues, something inside me prodded. How are you interested, they might ask me. If that happened I had nowhere to hide my face.. For two months, her absence bothered me like a mote in the eye, like the stain on the wall that tormented Virginia Woolf. She always wore cotton saris, not Woolf, in pastel shades, elegantly pleated down, crisp and starched. She would tilt her head a whit backward jutting her chin forward. I would look at the glass door she would open at ten every morning, take four steps, turn left, negotiate the alley between the back of my chair and the editor’s cabin, and enter her office separated from ours by a weather-bloated plywood partition and vaporize. .
Another time when she had failed to turn up for work for more than ten days I ventured to know what from an orderly in her office. ‘You don’t know, sir? She is now a lecturer; she has quit,’ he said. Slowly I got used to her absence. When I too had to leave the company after five years, she hardly beeped on my radar.
After both of us had left the slave driver’s company, a lot of personal and general history had happened in the five continents and space. The rivers of the world had emptied trillions of cusecs of water into the oceans in the years that passed as fast as digits in a tampered auto meter. I had lost my parents, three brothers, a sister and wife. A daughter she gave me went to school and college and settled in the US. Widowed, I migrated to the States to stay with my daughter. I had spent a voluntary 20-year exile in Delhi.. I was in and out of jobs. South Africa became free. The Soviet empire broke up. We put Rakesh Sharma in space from where he told Indira Gandhi Saare jahan se achcha Hindustan Hamara. Indira Gandhi punctured male and media egos by declaring an emergency. The Internet age also dawned.
So much history wrote itself before the familiar stranger weakly beeped on my radar. An e-mail came from her asking me if I remembered her. I had wondered how she could get my e-mail ID. I told her I remember her well and provided her information to assure I remember her well. A year later she was in the US and called me. Again, I didn’t know how she could get my US telephone number. She had come to spend time with her children who made the US their home. I don’t remember what transpired between us but those two or three calls helped us to become less of strangers.
I began filling my days in the US translating Indian stories into English and publishing them in a net magazine my daughter and I ran. In the meanwhile we got to know that the stranger had become one of the top storytellers in her country. We sought permission to translate and publish one of her stories in our magazine. When we completed publishing 100 stories from our magazine as an anthology we included in our collection one of her stories too. Mail by mail, we were able to transform our familiarity into friendship.
But the reagent came when on a visit to my cousin’s place I was told that the stranger lived in that colony in a street next to my cousin’s. I called on her and found that her husband was for a short period our colleague. It was not a useful meeting because the batteries in my hearing aid conked. I went back and wrote a very unconventional report of our dumb colloquy. It appeared as an article with a big picture of hers in a leading newspaper. When she saw it the next morning she was overwhelmed and shared her joy with her friends. Now, I am known to her friends I don’t know personally.
More mails flowed from each side, she telling me about her husband’s health, truancy of her servant maid and the battle of life and I writing about my articles, published and rejected. A few mails later the flow stopped abruptly like water from a municipal tap. A couple of my mails remained untaken like Martina Hingis’ aces.
Friendship is a gender-neutral noun just like they is a gender-neutral pronoun. Neither of us imagined that fiction would build bridges between us. I saw in her stories an exposition born out of experience. A language that opened a dialogue with the reader. Her pen dipped in conviction and missionary zeal abjured the highfalutin and mawkish outpourings.
But how does the story end? Why should it? Chekov, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver have all rejected traditional endings. Each story is part of a greater story that is still evolving. But I can exercise the writer’s privilege of asking the readers to suggest an ending. Okay?